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A Response to a Reaction Statement “Race, Law


and Punishment The Death Penalty”


April 17, 00


Racist sentiment has played a large role in the death penalty and the administration


Write your Race and Crime research paper


thereof. Although many courts have not wanted to acknowledge or address this issue,


racial selectivity has been brought to the attention of various levels of courts, regarding


capital punishment. For instance, the case of the Martinsville Seven, brought into plain


view, “both the presence of racial discrimination in sentencing and the determination of judges to avoid acknowledging that presence”.(1) Seven men in Martinsville, Virginia were found guilty of raping a white woman. The attorney appealed on grounds of unfair racial selectivity, asserting that the death penalty had been discriminately issued. This is the first case in which the death penalty for rape was seriously questioned. The appeal was rejected because the courts did not want to acknowledge that race had played a large role in who they sentenced to death. The court contended that punishment in other cases


did not justify how they should rule on the current case. Other issues that arose from this case was the question of remedy if the courts were to address the racial selectivity concern. One of the justices acknowledged, “a belief that retaining the death penalty and eliminating racial disparities in sentencing would necessarily entail race consciousness in regulating punishment.”(16)


The Wolfgang study was statistical information on rape convictions that included a list of extensive variables that affected the outcome of the death sentence in rape cases. The study proved that black males were the most likely victims of the death sentence especially when the alleged victim is white. In the Maxwell litigation, this information was submitted as evidence in an appeal, but Justice Henley dismissed the evidence as invalid.


He stood on the grounds that information from other cases did not alleviate the crime which was committed and therefore the punishment seemed to fit the crime in question. One of the problems in trying to challenge a conviction on anything else other than innocence is, “the impatience, annoyance, contempt, even, hatred that many people, including appellate judges, feel for those who have perpetrated horrible crimes against society and then, after having done so, appeal to society’s norms in order to avoid or lessen their punishment.”() The appellate court upheld Henley’s ruling, they also took the stand that post injustices in ruling did not apply to the case at hand.


Another significant case in the question of the exercise of the death penalty was Coker v. Georgia, which prohibited death as a sentence for rape. This case established that death as a penalty for rape was in violation of the 8th amendment as cruel and unusual punishment. They managed to keep the race question out of this case. “Coker brought the campaign against racial discrimination in sentencing for rape to a standstill.”(6) Furman v. Georgia further invalidated death penalties on the basis of the Eighth Amendment but, their were overturns to this objective such as Gregg v. Georgia.


Civil rights activists still claimed that the issue of racial selectivity in death sentences existed. This issue was not address until 187 in the case Mccleskey vKemp. The Baldus study, “the most comprehensive statistical analysis ever done”(8), was used in this case. The Baldus study found, “neither strong nor consistent evidence of discrimination directed against black defendants because of their race.”() He also found that of all other variables that can be used in sentencing discretion, the race of the victim was most prevalent, “the race of the victim continued to have a statistically significant correlation with the imposition of capital sentences.”() Lastly the Baldus study concluded that the greatest racial disparities existed, “in the middle range of homicides.”() Judge J. Owen Forrester rejected this claim as invalid claiming the information was not “good statistical evidence”.(0) Other justices and appellate courts did not agree with his ruling though and most thought the study was valid.


The problem in remedy is that in order to have equality in the courts on the issue, one must, “level up on the number of people executed for murdering blacks”, or, “leveling down-abolishing capital punishment altogether.”(41) The question was what solution would not be to extreme.


The RJA was an attempt to give another option for those seeking to prove racial selectivity. The “RJA required no showing of purposeful discrimination and created for a petitioner the rebuttal presumption that a statistically significant racial disparity in death sentences in a given locale meant that wrongful racial discrimination tainted his sentence too.”(46) The RJA failed to receive adequate support because most people are in favor of the death sentence and it would allow to much room for people to be able to get off to easy.





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