Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Not So Equal, Not So Protected

I've long opposed the death penalty, primarily because I don't believe the state should be in the business of killing people for killing people. There are other reasons for opposing the ultimate punishment, of course, and the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times reminds us of that:

Among the compelling arguments against capital punishment are its inherent brutality and its potential for error. But documented patterns of racial discrimination in sentencing are also well established and deeply troubling, particularly in cases in which the crime victim is white. A 2005 study of homicides in California from 1990 to 1999, for instance, drawing on FBI data, found that 2.1% of the offenders suspected of killing non-Latino whites were sentenced to death, compared with only 0.68% of those suspected of killing non-Latino African Americans.

North Carolina had hoped to offset that disparity:

In 2009, North Carolina's Legislature passed the Racial Justice Act, which allows defendants to make the case — at a pretrial hearing or after conviction — that statistics show that the death penalty has been imposed significantly more often on defendants in their geographical area because of their race or that of the victim. (Similar legislation was introduced in California in 2010 but languished in committee.) If the judge determines that race has been a factor — not in the individual case but statistically — then the death sentence may not be sought or would have to be vacated. Instead, the defendant would be sentenced to life without parole.

That was a rather dramatic, yet sensible approach. Unfortunately, Republicans now control the state's legislature and are busy trying to scuttle the law. While more overt forms of racism are gradually being weeded out, the less visible and often unconscious forms are still in play, which means that the punishment for the same crime differs based on race and/or ethnicity, a violation of the Equal Protection clause.

Admittedly, the use of statistical data is a departure from traditional notions of justice, which focus on the facts of the individual case. But it is possible that the system may be skewed as a whole without a judge consciously taking race into account when sentencing. Presenting statistical evidence could give a judge second thoughts about his unconscious biases. [Emphasis added]

Exactly so. It's at least a step in the right direction towards eliminating this barbaric practice.

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