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Capital Punishment: Morality, Politics, and Policy


In 1997 the House of Delegates of the American Bar Association called for a nationwide moratorium on executions, pending fundamental improvements in its administration. Salient problems affecting the fairness of the death penalty included failure to provide adequate trial counsel for the defendant, inadequate resources for counsel to investigate the crime and locate witnesses, and inadequate resources to verify alibi testimony and retain expert witnesses. Several other investigative bodies in the 1990s, notably the International Commission of Jurists (1996) and the UN Commission on Human Rights (1999), went further and called for the United States to abolish the death penalty entirely, on the ground that the record to date showed that these administrative problems were beyond remedy.

During the 1990s the Capital Jury Project, funded by the National Science Foundation, studied the behavior of jurors and juries in capital cases. Over a thousand juror interviews were conducted in more than a dozen death penalty states. Research found that trial jurors do not adequately understand the judge's instructions designed to guide them in deciding whether to sentence the defendant to death, and that even where they do understand these instructions, they often ignore them.

By far the most prominent worry has been prompted by perceived racial disparities in death sentences and executions. For decades, the men and women on American death rows have been disproportionately nonwhite when measured against their proportion of the total population. (The numbers have not been so disproportionate when measured against the racial distribution of all persons in prison.) In the early 1970s, research on the death penalty for rape showed a powerful race-of-victim effect: virtually no one was sentenced to death for the rape of a nonwhite woman, and a black man accused of raping a white woman was ten times as likely to be convicted, sentenced to death, and executed as a white man charged with the same crime.

In the early 1980s a massive research project was launched in order to determine whether much the same pattern could be found in the death penalty for murder. The results of this research, conducted by David Baldus and his associates for the appellant's argument in McCleskey v. Kemp (1987) and later published in their book as Equal Justice and the Death Penalty (1990), showed that "defendants charged with killing white victims were 4.3 times as likely to receive a death sentence as defendants charged with killing blacks" (p. 401). Nevertheless, the Supreme Court, by a vote of 5 to 4, refused to order revision or nullification of any death penalty statutes or procedures, arguing that this research failed to "prove that the decisionmakers in [McCleskey's] case acted with discriminatory purpose." Efforts in subsequent years to persuade Congress to enact a Racial Justice Act (designed to permit a challenge to any death sentence believed to be based on racial grounds and to require the government to rebut the challenge, if possible, with appropriate evidence to the contrary) were unsuccessful. Meanwhile, a 1990 report on racial disparities in death sentencing conducted by the U.S. General Accounting Office confirmed the "race of victim influence . . . at all stages of the criminal justice system process" (p. 5).

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawCapital Punishment: Morality, Politics, and Policy - The Death Penalty In America, 1793–1982, Current Status, Capital Crimes, Public Opinion, Administration