As Catholics continue to debate it, executions also continue; and while the discussion is always worthwhile, the position of the Catholic Church is clear—though often seen through a clouded lens—as our book, Capital Punishment and Catholic Social Teaching: A Tradition of Support, examines.
This recent article about capital punishment, from The American Interest, examines its current status—from a racial perspective— in America.
“The death penalty is back in the news. In the past month alone, Virginia has executed a woman for her role in the murder-for-hire of her husband and stepson, despite claims that she was nearly mentally retarded. States have grappled with a looming shortage of lethal-injection drugs. A Federal court in Georgia has rebuffed a death-row inmate’s claim that he is an innocent man, falsely convicted—but defense lawyers insist the judge got it wrong. And in North Carolina, the vast majority of that state’s 156 death-row inmates have filed appeals based on a new law that permits them to challenge their sentences on grounds of racial bias.
“For opponents of the death penalty, these and other events add up to more evidence that capital punishment in the United States is, in the words of one prominent study, “a broken system.” Of course, even a smoothly functioning death penalty would, in their view, violate basic human decency and basic human rights. Their emphasis on capital punishment’s operational flaws is a concession to political reality. According to the Gallup Organization, 65 percent of Americans favor the use of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder. Half of Americans say the death penalty is not imposed often enough; only 20 percent say it is imposed too often. So opponents’ best hope is to encourage doubts about the way it is implemented – an approach that offers the public a way to be against the death penalty, as it exists in the United States today, without necessarily ruling it out in principle.
“Racial bias ranks high on the list of accusations. There’s a good reason for this: racial disparities in capital sentencing are an historical reality—and a particularly ugly one at that. Anyone who doubts the death penalty’s past connection with racism need only consider this statistic: Between 1930 and 1967 (at which point executions stopped pending a decade-long Supreme Court overhaul of the death penalty), 54 percent of the 3,859 people put to death under civilian authority in the U.S. were African American. This was not only out of proportion with the black share of the total population but also out of proportion with the percentage of serious crimes committed by blacks. Given that history, lingering racism is an undeniable risk factor looming over today’s system.
“The question, however, is whether that risk is actually as large and as ineradicable as conventional wisdom maintains. And the answer is: probably not. In fact, much of the statistical evidence cited by death-penalty critics to show that blacks and whites fare differently in capital cases does not necessarily prove racism at all. To the contrary, it could well reflect racial progress.
“In the past, the disproportionate impact of capital punishment against blacks reflected racism all across the country, but especially in the Southern states, which used execution to enforce a broader caste system. The South put blacks to death for rape far more often than whites—especially when the alleged victim was a white woman. Of the 455 men executed for rape in the United States between 1930 and 1967, 90 percent were African American.
“These appalling facts formed the background for the Supreme Court’s consideration of the death penalty in the 1960s and 1970s. It was no accident that the Legal Defense Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, known as the LDF, led the constitutional challenges. The litigation culminated in a 1972 case, Furman v. Georgia, in which the Supreme Court struck down all existing state death-penalty laws. Two of the three cases grouped under that title involved African American men sentenced to death for raping white women in the South. The third was a black man convicted of killing a white man in the course of a bungled burglary.”