Disparity and Disgrace
Since the re-legalization of the death penalty as capital punishment with the Supreme Court decision in Gregg v. Georgia, 542 people have been executed in Texas, the most in the United States since this decision in 1976. One hundred ninety-seven of these people have been black. Upon first examination, one might think this portion of the whole doesn’t seem so bad, but many other factors must be considered to recognize the severity of racial bias in the criminal justice system, especially in capital punishment.
Comparison of the racial breakdown of those on death row with the total African American population of Texas should be the first indicator that something about this system is flawed. While 44% of Texas death row is black (Fig. 1), only 11% of the general Texas population identifies as such (Fig 2). In other words, the justice system has, inadvertently or not, facilitated unique demographics for the “community” of those facing capital punishment. It is worth noting, in each year, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety, there will be more white people arrested for murder than black people. Therefore, what must be determined is where the gap between murder arrests and capital crime convictions and sentencing arises.
As recently as February 2017, the case of Duane Buck came before the United States Supreme Court. Buck was convicted and sentenced to death for murdering his ex-girlfriend and the man who was accompanying her in 1995. In his trial, a psychologist, who was called on by Buck’s own lawyer, testified that his race made him a potential danger in the future, a requirement for sentencing someone to death in Texas. For this reason, he argues that his death sentence was mainly based on his race. Per the recent decision, he will now be able to appeal to a lower court for re-sentencing, but many of those men and women on death row are not this fortunate. The level of explicit racism in this case is very blatant, but in many cases, the racism may be concealed or even implicit, meaning that the racism is there, but no one can really acknowledge it.
It is important to examine not only the race of the convicted, but also the race of the victim of the crime. The victim’s race may seem like an afterthought in conviction, but when the jury and judge determine the level of guilt of and appropriate punishment for a defendant, they are also looking back on the victim and his or her circumstances and suffering. The justice system is not colorblind. Nationally, almost 76% of those who have been sentenced to death had a white victim (Fig 3). Just in Texas, crimes involving white victims account for about 68% of those executed since 1976 (Fig 4). According to the 2010 Census, about 70% of Texans identify as white. Therefore, the percentage of victims of those executed is very close to the percentage of the general white population. However, black and white people are statistically much more likely to commit a violent crime, like homicide, with a target being someone of the same race. In fact, in 2015, of the 3,167 white and 2,664 black victims, 81% of the whites were killed by a white person, and 89% of the black people were killed by another black person (Fig 5).
What is implied by more people being executed for crimes against white people, and why is Texas’ execution rate the highest? Extensive research has been done in this field, but it seems the justice system may see crimes against white people as more offensive (whether they intend to or not), and that those who commit these crimes are more likely to commit another dangerous crime. In The Rope, the Chair, and the Needle: Capital Punishment in Texas, 1923–1990 by James W. Marquart, Sheldon Ekland-Olson, and Jonathan R. Sorensen, the authors offer the culture of the south as a reason for why so many more people have been executed in Texas. According to this book, 90% of executions in the two decades following Furman v. Georgia occurred in former Confederate states. As much as people deny racism and insist there has been change, this statistic alone implies that this issue could be rooted in the old southern culture of treating certain groups of people as less than human.
Despite the alarming racial discrepancy seen through the previous statistics, public opinion polls in Texas do not draw racial lines between support and opposition for the death penalty. According to the Texas Tribune Poll from February 2015, more black and Hispanic people somewhat or strongly support the death penalty than oppose it (Fig 6). About 75% of Texans who participated in this poll somewhat supported or strongly supported the death penalty. Despite inequality in sentencing discussed previously, the death penalty is still seen by most as a viable option for capital punishment. Could this be because people do not realize the racial disproportionality and injustice experienced by black people on death row? It is impossible to know how many wrongly accused people have been put to death, but since the system has been shown to be inherently racist, one can only assume the system is also flawed in its ability to have complete and unbiased investigations.
The recognition and attempted explanation of these disparities does not mean that somehow these heinous crimes are less horrible, and it does not excuse them. They are significant and worthy of pointing out because they indicate deeper social problems that do not have a simple or easy solution. Racial inequality and bias in the United States, especially in Texas and the rest of the south, could plausibly be pointed to as cause for putting some people in a position that makes them feel desperate enough to commit a crime that can put them in prison for life, or worse, physically put an end to their life.