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Politics Mondays: Clemency Countdown For Stanley “Tookie” Williams: The Racial Politics of Capital Punishment by Anthony Asadullah Samad


Clemency for Stanley “Tookie” Williams. As we continue to push Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for clemency, there are plenty reasons to call the practice of capital punishment into question. Part of the reason that the death penalty is so controversial is not just its inhumaneness, but also in its selective application. It is a racially biased endeavor that is the core of no less than two dozen studies over the past decade.

The misapplication of the death penalty in the prosecutorial process is a highly questionable practice when it comes to requesting who gets life and who gets death. The death sentence is requested, and imposed, more frequently on black males than any other segment of the population. Is it because black men are more violent? Absolutely not. Most murders in America are committed by white males. Yet, black defendant are sentenced to death 40% more than all other defendants accused of similar crimes.

At the end of 2004, the Justice Department had 1,390 Blacks on death row (compared to 1,851 Whites). While sixteen of the inmates are black women, black males are six (6%) percent of the nation's population but are 42% of the nation's death row inmates. White males are 34% of the nation's population, and 53% of the death row population. With 637 inmates on death row, California has the nation's largest death row population (also has the nation's longest wait-22 years on average). Black males represent four percent of the state's population, but 36% of the state's death row population. In a study done by the Death Penalty Information Center in 1998 entitled, “The Death Penalty In Black and White: Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Decides, the report stated “The influence of race on the death penalty is pervasive and corrosive…corrective measures have been blocked by those who claim that capital punishment would bog down if racial fairness was required. And so, the sore festers.”

There are three factors that create this bias against black men; jury bias (where one study identified that nearly a third of qualified jurors in potential death penalty cases indicated that they had a prejudiced view of Blacks), prosecutor bias (99.7% of the nation's prosecutors in death penalty cases are white) and judicial bias (judges issue longer sentences and more death sentences to black defendants, and at a more frequent rate than any other defendant). There's even instances where judges collude with prosecutors to identify jurors most likely to bring about death penalty convictions. One in three black defendants up for murder are tried with “special circumstances,” versus one in eight for whites. The system is, literally, stacked against black defendant in death penalty cases. More stacked than in any other trial encounters in the criminal justice system.

In fact, this study calls “being black” such an “aggravating factor” that cases in which Blacks kill non-blacks (versus non-blacks killing non-blacks, or non-blacks killing blacks) have a much higher death sentencing rate--two and a half times higher. Another issue that is relevant in Williams case. Just a point of note, Blacks who kill other Blacks have the lowest death sentencing rate of the four categories mentioned. Hmmm… The point is that the judge, the prosecutor and the jury see when a black defendant is involved, and the public polls higher, in favor of the death penalty, when an execution date is set--understanding that it will disproportionately black defendants. Of the 59 people put to death in 2004, a third (19) were Black. California executed one person in 2004, a Hispanic.

Race and the death penalty is not a figment of our imagination. In fact, it's a figment of nobody's imagination. This issue has been studied for the past 20 years. In the late 1980s, Congress asked the general Accounting Office to review the empirical studies on race and the death penalty which had been conducted up to that time. The GAO reviewed 28 studies that looked both race of defendant and race of victim discrimination, finding that in 82% of the studies, race of the victim was found to influence the likelihood of being charged with capital murder case with death as the penalty. Clearly, all the evidence studied for the past three decades associate race with the application of capital punishment, the sentencing of death and the frequency of execution.

So disparate is race in death penalty cases evident that last year, a group of 450 attorneys participating in the Conference of Delegates of the California Bar Association called for a two year moratorium on executions until the state reviews whether capital punishment laws are fairly and uniformly enforcement. They also called for Governor Schwarzenegger to create an independent committee to examine the issue of race, the reliability of convictions and whether the condemned had adequate legal representation. All are questions raised in the conviction and sentencing of Tookie Williams. Schwarzenegger has yet to respond to the bar association call. In 2003, State Senator Gloria Romero also called for a special committee to study that state's death penalty. It is time California paid the same attention to the flaws of the capital punishment system that Illinois has. Illinois placed a moratorium on the death penalty and its previous Governor, George Ryan's, last official act was to give clemency to all the state's death row prisoners, converting their death sentences to life in prison--the ultimate acknowledgment of a most biased application of the state's most questionable act. California needs to do the same thing. Start with Stanley Tookie Williams.

Anthony Asadullah Samad is a national columnist, managing director of the Urban Issues Forum and author of 50 Years After Brown: The State of Black Equality In America (Kabili Press, 2005). He can be reached at www.AnthonySamad.com


Anthony Asadullah Samad

Monday, November 21, 2005

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