Racial Imbalance Within the Capital Punishment System

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Angelisse Alvarez

Staff Writer

Between July of last year and Jan. of this year, 13 prisoners were executed under the Trump administration. 

Preceding his election, President. Biden declared he would put an end to federal execution. As of Feb. 28, he has yet to directly re-address that pledge. 

Some executions that were set to go forward the remainder of this year were given a stay or reprieved, but the practice has not been abolished. 

One common response to people who advocate against the death penalty on social media is usually a variant of the following question:

“Why have sympathy for someone who committed murder?” 

But that perspective assumes that corruption doesn’t exist in the criminal justice system, that black people aren’t disproportionately targeted in prison sentences, and that the death penalty is not influenced by racial bias. 

Brandon Bernard, a black man who was executed on Dec. 10, 2020 at the age of 40, was put on death row at eighteen years old for his role in the murders of Todd and Stacie Bagley.

Bernard was originally charged for setting their car on fire. However, developments in the case revealed he was not their killer. 

It didn’t make sense to place Bernard on death row. His prosecutor, Angela Moore, along with five out of nine surviving jurors agreed that Bernard shouldn’t be executed. 

The Supreme Court disregarded the revelations of his case. They were determined to kill him and uphold capital punishment no matter what.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 180 people have been released from death row since 1973 after it was concluded that they didn’t kill anyone. This renders the system notoriously reckless. 

Additionally, their fact sheet states, “Jurors in Washington state are three times more likely to recommend a death sentence for a black defendant than for a white defendant in a similar case.” 

I believe the death penalty should be abolished. I am not naive towards there being prisoners on death row who have been deliberately responsible for murders, and my position does not serve as a defense of those killings. 

But those cases do not defy the broad display of systemic racism that dominates the practice. We cannot turn a blind eye. 

So long as racial disparities continue to be present in who the criminal justice system prioritizes, it will continue to influence who receives capital punishment.

We should discuss the government’s power to end lives critically when the very practice is historically informed by racial injustice.

For The Associated Press in Sept. of 2020, Colleen Long wrote, “Of the 57 people on federal death row, 34 are people of color, including 26 Black men, some convicted by all-white juries.”

And in a study published in The Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, it was found that being convicted for the murder of a white victim will more likely result in the death penalty than being convicted for the murder of a black victim. 

“The overall execution rate is a staggering seventeen times greater for defendants convicted of killing a white victim,” the study concludes. 

Another absurd characteristic of the death penalty is that once a prisoner is put on death row, it takes over a decade to see through. Oftentimes, several. 

This relates back to Brandon Bernard, who was executed 20 years after his sentence. Corey Johnson, who was notably intellectually disabled, was executed after nearly 30 years on Jan. 14. 

The way the criminal justice system determines who lives and dies is evidently a mess. Why were these executions such high priority after the passing of decades? 

In an extending conversation, this topic tackles the idea of prison as a form of rehabilitation. How can that be a possible end goal of prison when a defendant is executed anyway? 

The death penalty directly mirrors this nation’s history of lynching. Currently, the state of Virginia might abolish it. 

I will stay updated on whether or not President. Biden ends up honoring his word.

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