The role of race and the death penalty



For over 200 years the death penalty was specifically prescribed based on the race of the defendant and the race of the victim. That is, in Alabama, it was a mandatory death penalty offense if a black person was convicted of raping a white person. If a white person was convicted of raping a black person, then the most a person could be punished was one year in prison. So, race of the defendant and race of the victim has historically played a dominant role in who gets the death penalty and who does not.

The death penalty and race:

  • between 1930 and 1972, 88% of those executed for rape were black men
  • between 1930 and 1972, 100% of those executed for rape were convicted of raping a white woman.
  • between 1930 and 1972, black women were three times as likely to raped as white women

In Georgia, according to a study of homicides conducted in the early ’80s

  • you are 11 times more likely to get the death penalty if the victim is white than if the victim is black.
  • you are 22 times less likely to get the death penalty if the defendant is white than if the defendant is black.

Since the new death penalty statutes have come back in the 1970’s, the same patterns have continued. [Cornelius]Singleton became the 10th person executed in the state of Alabama. That now means that 70% of the people executed here have been black, although the black population of this state is less than 27%. (1992)



We’ve got 128 judges in the state of Alabama that preside over capital cases. Less than five of these judges are black. Less than five of them are women. As a result of that, when you go into a capital trial, you’re likely to see a black defendant, a white judge, a white prosecutor, a white lawyer, and a nearly all white jury.

Blatant Racism

We have a case, out of Florida, where a trial judge, a white judge, was presiding over a case involving a black defendant. This judge was confident that the death penalty ought to be imposed even before the trial started.

At the end of the guilt phase, the trial judge saw the mother and father of this black defendant leaving the courtroom for a lunch break. He looked up and on the record he said, “Well, there goes the nigger mom and nigger dad. Why don’t we get them to testify right now? We can save the state some money from having to bring them back to court.” The penalty phase continued and the judge sentenced this man to death.

On appeal, the Florida Supreme Court acknowledged in a footnote what this judge said. The court then said in it’s opinion, “We want to admonish state court judges in Florida to avoid the appearance of impropriety.” That was the end of their discussion. And it’s ironic to me that this judge, had he been a newscaster or a sports commentator, would have lost his job. But because he’s a trial judge, presiding over black defendants and sentencing people to death day in and day out, he still sits on the bench today. The extent of his punishment was to have the court tell him to avoid the appearance of impropriety. It reflects the way in which we tolerate racial bias in the administration of the death penalty and in the criminal justice system.

Court Appointed Lawyers

 There is no public defender system in Alabama. A poor person accused of a capital crime will get a lawyer appointed by the court. This lawyer may not do much work outside of real estate or divorce cases. They will get paid, by state law, no more than $1,000 to defend this client.

How might the trial go?

  • It will probably start a year or two after the arrest, with the client spending that time in jail.
  • The average length of a capital case trial in Alabama is two and a half days.
  • The defense, due to lack of criminal case experience or funds, will probably call few, if any, witnesses.
  • The defense may try to avoid being too closely associated with the client by saying things to the jury like, “I’m only representing this person because I was appointed. I think he ought to get the death penalty, too. But my job is to try to convince you otherwise.”


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