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  • Kamsi Obiorah

The Death Penalty Is Obsolete

Updated: Jan 1, 2021

The death penalty is a dehumanizing method of punishment that executes a prisoner for a heinous crime. Due to the biased criminal justice system, African Americans are more likely to receive the death penalty than whites.

The political background surrounding the death penalty is complicated. Despite the fact that the death penalty violates the dignity of the human person, over 60 percent of Americans support it. Traditionally, more Republicans support the death penalty than Democrats. In 2018, 77 percent of Republicans said that they supported the death penalty, while only 35 percent of Democrats said that they favored the death penalty.

The 2020 Democratic Party Platform called for the abolition of the death penalty. Meanwhile, the Republican Party adopted the same platform the party used in 2016, which defended the constitutionality of the death penalty and supported states’ rights to enact capital punishment. In the document of the 2016 Republican Party Platform, they attributed the need of the death penalty to the soaring murder rates in certain cities in the United States.

This is not to say that in the past Democrats have not supported the death penalty to garner the Republican vote. An example is President Bill Clinton. Clinton appealed to the race factor of the death penalty in the late 1990s to garner the support of white voters.

Like other politicians looking to win the hearts of scared Americans, he used the death penalty to show that he was tough on crime. Republican candidates in the “Tough-on-Crime” Era, such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, strongly supported the death penalty for similar reasons.

The death penalty has been a pawn in the agendas of many American politicians who abuse the stereotype of the “hardened criminal” to gain the trust of the voter. Meanwhile, poorer Americans pay the price. Nearly all of the 3,500 Americans awaiting execution on death row have low income backgrounds.

Wealthy people are less likely to be put on death row. A large part of the death row population is composed of people who are distinguished by their poverty. Not only are poor blacks and Latinos already at a disadvantage due to the color of their skin, but also because it is harder for them to receive legal representation.

Due to the inadequate funding that goes towards public defender programs, a small number of accomplished lawyers are able to represent African Americans and Latinos on death row.

The racial bias within the criminal justice system allows for the unlawful execution of minorities. 60 percent of our prison population is composed of people of color who receive longer sentences than whites. 34 percent of defendants executed in the US since 1976 have been black.

This is a high percentage considering the fact that African Americans only make up 13 percent of the nation’s population. Meanwhile, 77 percent of the people executed since 1976 were convicted of killing white victims. When the victims are white, blacks and Latinos have a much higher chance of being convicted under the death penalty.

The states play a huge role in the discriminatory practices of the death penalty. However, the federal government retains the ability to give death sentences against defendants where the death penalty is banned. Since prosecutors initiate the charging decisions, they have a lot of power with regards to the death penalty.

In some cases, juries also have the power to influence a case regarding capital punishment. Sometimes, prosecutors will try to limit the number of African Americans on the juries in order to control the outcome of the case. Meanwhile, even if some juries decide that the defendant does not deserve to be sent to death row, four states, Alabama, Delaware, Florida, and Indiana, have allowed judges to override the jury’s decision in capital punishment cases.

The social and historical background of the death penalty in relation to its use on minorities stems from lynchings. Lynchings were often performed by mobs of white people. Whites killed people, often by hanging, for an alleged offense with or without legal trial. Lynchings started during the late 1880s as a way for whites to use extralegal violence to oppress black people.

Most lynchings were of African-American men in the Southern United States. The culture of the white South was to lynch a black person who was either too powerful or too “disrespectful.” This sort of mob mentality led to the illegal deaths of many black people.

As hard as it is to admit, lynchings have shaped the way the death penalty is used today. According to the Atlanta Black Star, Southern lawmakers shifted to the death penalty once lynchings were disfavored because of the ‘bad press’ they garnered.

The sentiment that the death penalty serves as a deterrent for violent criminals connects to how whites lynched black people on the basis that it would prevent other blacks from “acting out of line.” Contrary to popular belief, the death penalty has no deterrent effect. Not to mention the fact that the death penalty has an innocence rate of about 4 percent.

The death penalty as a method of punishment is immoral in and of itself. The race and class bias that permeates the death penalty is representative of America’s relationship with poor, minority communities as a whole.

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