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Capital Punishment in the United States Explained

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In our Explainer series, Fair Punishment Project lawyers help unpackage some of the most complicated issues in the criminal justice system. We break down the problems behind the headlines - like bail, civil asset forfeiture, or the Brady doctrine - so that everyone can understand them. Wherever possible, we try to utilize the stories of those affected by the criminal justice system to show how these laws and principles should work, and how they often fail. We will update our Explainers monthly to keep them current. Read our updated explainer here.
To beat the clock on the expiration of its lethal injection drug supply, this past April, Arkansas tried to execute 8 men over 1 days. The stories told in frantic legal filings and clemency petitions revealed a deeply disturbing picture. Ledell Lee may have had an intellectual disability that rendered him constitutionally ineligible for the death penalty, but he had a spate of bad lawyers who failed to timely present evidence of this claim -…

The Anomaly of Dylann Roof

Dylann Roof
Dylann Roof
White-on-black murders rarely result in a death sentence. Roof might be an exception.

Federal prosecutors have announced that they will seek a death sentence for Dylann Roof, meaning he will face two death penalty trials.

Though Dylann Roof’s case is in its earliest stages, he is likely to face the death penalty for shooting a group of churchgoers in Charleston, S.C. earlier this summer. Governor Nikki Haley is pushing for the punishment, and a famed capital defense attorney, David Bruck, has been hired to represent Roof in both local and federal murder cases.

Roof will join an extremely short list in American history: white defendants facing the death penalty for killing black victims. Only 31 of the nearly 800 white defendants executed since 1976 — when the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty — had a black victim, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. During the same timeframe, 234 of nearly 500 executed black defendants had white victims.

The last time a white person was put to death for killing a black person in South Carolina, where Roof will be tried, was in 1991. In Pennsylvania, it was in 1999. In Louisiana, 17521. In Texas, there were no such executions between 1854 and 2003, and in Alabama, there were none from 1913 to 1997 (there haven’t been any, since, either). In Florida, a white defendant has never been put to death for murdering a black person.

“It is pretty much like you have to be a Dylann Roof in order to get executed for such a crime,” says Frank Baumgartner, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

In a recent article, Baumgartner wrote that the effect of the victim’s race on the likelihood of a death sentence “is one of the most consistent findings in all empirical legal scholarship relating to capital punishment.”

Ever since the research of law professor David C. Baldus on racial disparities in Georgia death sentences formed the basis for a failed Supreme Court challenge to the death penalty in 1987, researchers have consistently argued that there is a relationship between race and capital punishment: white victims produce more executions than black victims, while black defendants are more likely than white defendants to be sentenced to death.


Source: The Marshall Project, Maurice Chammah, May 25, 2016

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