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Death penalty has been used to enforce racial hierarchies since colonial times, study concludes

Death penalty has been used to enforce racial hierarchies since colonial times, study concludes


This 1991 photo shows the Virginia electric chair, which was moved from the old, now-demolished state penitentiary in Richmond to the prison facility in Greensville, Va.

The death penalty has been used in the U.S. to enforce racial hierarchies since colonial times, according to a report released Tuesday by the Death Penalty Information Center.

Racial disparities are still present in capital cases, the DPIC contends.

“If you don’t understand the history — that the modern death penalty is the direct descendant of slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow-segregation — you won’t understand why,” the report says.

Southern states dominate two maps produced in the report that show locations of the lynchings of Black individuals in the U.S. between 1883 and 1940 and the legal executions of Black people from 1972 to 2020.

And historic figures from Virginia are displayed in a graphic that the DPIC says shows how race determined who was executed for nonmurder crimes in the state.

By 1848, the report says, white people in Virginia could be sentenced to death only for first-degree murder, while slaves could be executed for less serious crimes.

By the 20th century, race distinction in the law was gone in Virginia, but not in practice, the report says.

The DPIC says that in Virginia, from 1900 to 1969, 185 Blacks and 46 whites were executed for murder. And although a total of 73 Blacks were executed for rape, attempted rape and armed robbery — no whites were, according to the DPIC study.

The findings echo those of a 2004 review by the Richmond Times-Dispatch of archived Virginia Department of Corrections records and contemporaneous newspaper accounts of executions in the state from 1908 to 1954.

The figures suggest that Virginia’s justice system curbed lynchings by supplanting them with court-imposed executions.

Quick trials and use of the death penalty against Blacks are reasons why Virginia had the lowest incidence of lynchings of any state in the South from 1880 to 1950, according to W. Fitzhugh Brundage, a University of North Carolina history professor and an expert on lynchings.

The Times-Dispatch found that191 of the 221 men and one woman executed in Virginia from 1908 to 1954 were Black. Only murder put whites in the electric chair, and not often.

The 87-page DPIC report released Tuesday is titled “Enduring Injustice: The Persistence of Racial Discrimination in the U.S. Death Penalty.”

Ngozi Ndulue, the report’s lead author, said, “The death penalty has been used to enforce racial hierarchies throughout United States history, beginning with the colonial period and continuing to this day.”

According to the study, as lynchings decreased in the early 20th century, executions increased.

“Across the South, African-American men were condemned and executed for the alleged rape or attempted rape of white women or girls. No white man was ever executed for raping a Black woman or girl,” the authors wrote.

According to the DPIC report, 13% of the 823 Blacks convicted of rape in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina and Tennessee between 1945 and 1965 were sentenced to death. During the same period, just 2% of 442 white men convicted of rape were sentenced to death.

The same disparities were seen in executions, the DPIC found. Of the 455 men executed for rape in the U.S. between 1930 and 1972, 405 — or 89% — were Black and 443 of the 455 occurred in former Confederate states, the report says.

The report contends that racial bias persists today: the murders of white people are more likely to lead to capital murder charges; the systemic exclusion of jurors of color from service in death penalty trials; and disproportionate imposition of death sentences against defendants of color.

The authors said evidence of racial bias in the report includes a 2015 analysis of 30 studies showing that the killers of white people were more likely than the killers of Black people to face a capital prosecution.

The DPIC report cited other evidence to support the argument that discrimination remains in the application of capital punishment:

  • A North Carolina study cited in the report showed that qualified Black jurors were struck from juries at more than twice the rate of qualified white jurors. As of 2010, 20% of those on the state’s death row were sentenced to death by all-white juries.
  • Since executions resumed in 1977, 295 African-Americans defendants have been executed for the murder of a white victim, while only 21 white defendants have been executed for the murder of an African-American victim.
  • Exonerations of African Americans for murder convictions are 22% more likely to be linked to police misconduct.

There have been more executions in Virginia since colonial times than in any other state — almost 1,400, beginning in 1608 when Capt. George Kendall, a Jamestown councilor, was shot by firing squad.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed executions to resume in 1976, Virginia has executed 113 people, a toll second only to Texas.

In 2000, a study of Virginia’s death penalty by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission found that defendants who murdered white victims were more likely to be indicted for capital murder and face prosecution than defendants who murdered Black victims.

But that study concluded that local prosecutors do not base the decision of whether to seek the death penalty in capital-eligible cases on the race of the defendant or the race of the victim.

A recent study of Georgia executions published in the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review focused on who was actually executed — and not just tried — for capital murder.

Nationally, relatively few death sentences imposed in the U.S. are ultimately carried out. That study found a person was 17 times more likely to be executed for murdering a white victim than a nonwhite victim.

Robert Dunham, executive director of the DPIC, said racial disparities grow as cases proceed to juries, then to convictions, then to death sentences and then to executions, where the report shows that, nationally, 75% of all the people executed in the U.S. were convicted of killing white victims.

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