Death penalty and race

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Death penalty and race

Post  Jennie on Mon Jul 07, 2008 11:29 pm

Death penalty and race: Scales of justice may weigh heavily against blacks----Statistics indicate sentence meted out highly selectively.

For Bill Babbitt, a black man, the question comes down to this: Why did Sacramento County condemn his brother Manny to death for killing a white woman but sentence his cousin Butchie's white killer to a year in jail?

"I'm looking at all these murders that have occurred, hundreds, and I'm thinking, how did Manny's name come up?" says Babbitt, who witnessed his brother's execution by lethal injection in 1999.

How did Manuel Babbitt become one of the 827 first-degree murderers chosen for California's ultimate penalty? The same question is being asked, in effect, by a state commission that tried to learn whether race or other inappropriate factors have been determining who gets the death penalty and who does not.

After failing to obtain most of the relevant data, the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, appointed by the state Senate and chaired by former California Attorney General John Van de Kamp, last week called for legislation requiring prosecutors to collect and report all information on their decisions whether to seek the death penalty. The commission also wants courts and defense lawyers, as well as prosecutors, to collect and report information showing whether race affects the outcome of murder prosecutions.

The commission calculated that 87 % of 1st-degree murders in California could be prosecuted as death-penalty cases. But the great majority are not. The commission was unable to find out what makes the difference partly because most county district attorneys refused to cooperate with Pepperdine University law school researchers employed to construct and conduct a survey. District attorneys in each county have their own standards and procedures for evaluating murder cases. But even those internal rules are kept secret in most counties, including Sacramento.

Some information is available, however, from other sources. It reveals disturbing patterns. Records show administration of the death penalty is highly selective 5.6 % of about 12,000 1st-degree murderers now in prison are sentenced to death.

Since capital punishment was reinstated in California in 1977, death sentences against black defendants, but not Latinos, have been disproportionately enormous by almost every measure: population, homicide rates, victim data and the sentencing patterns of other states.

California's 5-to-1 ratio of blacks on death row to blacks in the state population, measured in percentages, is much higher than the ratios in Texas, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina. The national average is 3 to 1.

Most of the raw data come from published and unpublished reports of statisticians in the state Department of Justice, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and the California Appellate Project, which provides technical support to defense lawyers appointed by the state Supreme Court in capital appeals. The project tries to collect ethnic data matching death row inmates and victims, and does its best to verify the information.

The problem with the high death penalty rate for blacks isn't the number arrested for homicide. 24 % of the people arrested for homicide are black, but blacks make up 36 % of the current death row population. Latinos are 46 % of homicide arrestees but 20 % of death row inmates.

One factor causing this imbalance seems to be a large number of cases in which blacks have been sentenced to death for killing white victims. Statewide, where the victim's race is known, nearly half of all death sentences against black defendants have involved the killing of at least one white victim. In death sentences against all ethnic groups, 59 % have involved a white victim. Yet whites are only about 22 % of homicide victims.

The numbers for Sacramento County are similar to the state figures in some respects but not others. The defendant was black in 1 of every 3 death sentences handed down in Sacramento County. A white victim was involved in 4 out of 5 death sentences against blacks. The county's black population is about one in 10.

(source: Sacramento Bee)

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