NCProsecutor | Indy Week

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Re: “Poor execution

The article describes the very real dilemma faced by those of us who support a limited application of capital punishment -- the Eighth Amendment requires that the punishment be carried out in a way that is not cruel or unusual, and yet the medical profession has deemed it (quite rightly, IMO) unethical for physicians to be involved in the process. I have no idea how the lethal injection protocol will satisfy these seemingly contradictory requirements. However, the article does fall victim to hyperbole here: "An inordinate percentage of those sentenced to death are poor and minorities." [A subsequent commenter, DavidMills, repeats this claim.] At least with respect to the racial composition of North Carolina's death row, this is demonstrably false. As of 4/10/06, NC's death row looked like this: 37.4% White 55.2% African-American 7.5% other The racial composition of inmates in the custody of the Department of Corrections convicted of NON-capital murder (as of 1/31/06): 32.4% White 61.1% African-American 6.5% other And just for comparison, the racial composition of NC's entire prison population (again, as of 1/31/06): 35.0% White 58.3% African-American 6.7% other [These statistics were taken from the NC Department of Corrections website. The difference in dates is due ot the fact that death row statistics are updated more or less in real time by the department, while broader population statistics are updated quarterly. These data were collected in April 2006.] As you can see, the death penalty is not handed down disproportionately by race as compared to non-capital murder sentences or the prison population as a whole. In fact, the racial composition of these three populations is remarkably similar. It is certainly true that the racial composition of death row inmates is remarkably different from the racial composition of the state as a whole -- African-Americans made up only 21.6% of NC's population per the 2000 census -- but the same difference appears in all three described populations, not just death row. Clearly, African-Americans are on death row in numbers disproportionate to their percentage of North Carolina's population. But they are also convicted of non-capital murders by the same "disproportion," and the same is true for the overall prison population in this state. Why is this distinction different? Death penalty opponents are people of strong conviction, and I respect the strength of those convictions. But the way in which the criminal justice system treats defendants of color is a complicated issue that implicates racial bias in the broader society, disparities in educational and economic opportunities for minorities, and environmental issues, among many, many others. If there is an indictment to be issued, it should name the society as a whole, and the criminal justice system in particular, but it has nothing to do with the way the death penalty operates in practice. Having said that, I understand full well that the effects of racial bias which may be present in the criminal justice system as a whole have their most repugnant "fulfillment" where they influence capital cases. However, the dean of the UNC School of Law, Jack Boger, recently testified before NC's House Select Committee on Capital Punishment that the race of the defendant had no statistical impact on whether or not a defendant received the death penalty. Dean Boger's contention was that the race of the VICTIM made a statistically significant difference, not the race of the defendant. Which is another topic for another day. Suffice it to say that the death penalty does not fall on minorities disproportionately as compared to defendants convicted of non-capital murder. As to poverty, well, the Department of Corrections doesn't keep statistics on the income level of inmates prior to incarceration. But it's a damning indictment of our criminal justice system that rich people don't usually get convicted of anything, much less murder.

Posted by NCProsecutor on 02/14/2007 at 8:52 AM

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