Blind Justice? An Examination of the Role of Race in Capital Punishment

by Breanna Platt
Criminology and Criminal Justice
Faculty advisor: Dr. Neal McNabb

There is a long history of racial discrimination in the United States.  Numerous state and federal laws to limit minority participation in some of our most fundamental activities have been enacted and subsequently struck down as unlawful.  The U.S. Supreme Court first took up the issue of racial discrimination in jury selection in 1879 when they decided in Strauder v. West Virginia that a state statute limiting jury service to white males was unconstitutional.  Despite the significant progress our society has made since that time in reducing discriminatory behavior, over one hundred years later the U.S. Supreme Court held in McCleskey v. Kemp that statistical evidence of racial discrimination in the application of the death penalty is insufficient to establish an unconstitutional pattern of capital sentencing either under the Eighth or Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution.  Although this issue has not been addressed by the Court in over 20 years, there continues to be debate over whether or not this decision is morally defensible.

This project is an examination of racial discrimination in the application of the death penalty in the United States.  Included are several landmark cases focusing on racial discrimination that have been decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, a look the racial composition of death row inmates and their victims, and a review of some of the recent academic literature on race and the death penalty.  Specifically, this project focuses on the racial characteristics of both capital offenders and victims in an attempt to call attention to the racial disparities in death row sentencing.