More white Americans still support the death penalty. There’s an unpleasant reason for that| Friday Morning Coffee

November 29, 2019 7:07 am

Good Friday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

So, first things first: Pennsylvania hasn’t executed anyone since Philadelphia torture-killer Gary Heidnik was put to death at Rockview State Prison in Centre County in 1999. And shortly after taking office in 2015, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf imposed a moratorium on executions that persists even now.

Despite overwhelming evidence that society’s ultimate sanction is biased against poor defendants and defendants of color, other states still have death penalty statutes. And too many continue to carry out executions, putting the United States in the company of such noted beacons of human freedom as Iran and China.

Writing for The Conversation, Kevin O’Neal Cokley, a professor of Educational Psychology and African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin offers an additional wrinkle: The significant racial disparity in public opinion on capital punishment, and the effect it has on the death penalty’s endurance as a method of punishment — even though it has proven to be largely useless as a deterrent.

(Photo via Flickr Commons)

He writes:

The racially inequitable application of the death penalty was highlighted on Nov. 15, 2019, when, in an unexpected turn of events, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals halted the execution of Rodney Reed less than one week before he was scheduled to be executed for the 1996 murder of Stacey Stites.

The case was racially charged. Reed, a black man, is accused of killing Stites, a white woman, and was found guilty by an all-white jury.

The Reed case is one of many capital murder cases that present an opportunity to critically examine the application of the death penalty.

As director of the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis at the University of Texas at Austin, I lead an organization that is committed to the elimination of racial bias and disparities through promoting equitable public policies.

Since 1976, people of color have accounted for 43% of total executions and make up over half of inmates who are currently scheduled to be executed.

In Texas, African Americans make up less than 13 percent of the population yet represent 44.2 percent of death row inmates. Nationally, African Americans make up 42 percent of death row inmates.

When both race and gender are considered, disparities in sentencing become even more pronounced. Homicides involving white female victims are significantly more likely to result in a death sentence than homicides with any other victim characteristics.

(Image via Flickr Commons)

Moreover, he adds:

However, beyond the explicit examples of racial bias in the criminal justice system that typically get the most attention, there remains another, more subtle bias related to the beliefs held by jurors.

People who oppose the death penalty cannot serve on a murder case jury where the death penalty is a possibility. Only individuals who say they would consider the death penalty can serve.

When you examine the numbers behind support of the death penalty, a trend emerges.

White people make up the core of support for the death penalty in the United StatesStudies indicate that white people show significantly higher support for the death penalty than do black people.

This is consistent with a 2018 poll by the Pew Research Center, which found that 59 percent of white people favor the death penalty, compared with 47 percent of Latino and 36 percent of black people. Among white people, evangelical Protestants show the strongest support for the death penalty, with 73 percent favoring it.

Why do white people support the death penalty at much higher levels than black people?

According to research, one answer is racial prejudice. White Americans tend to associate criminality with racial minoritiesIn one study, researchers found that, after controlling for factors including education, family income, religion and political ideology, white people with stronger anti-black attitudes were more likely to support the death penalty.

It should come as no surprise that views about the criminal justice system diverge widely between black and white Americans, with black Americans being much more likely to see the system as racially biased.

Perhaps this explains why prosecutors, in spite of the illegality of excluding prospective jurors based on race, still use tactics to strike potential black jurors from the jury.

When juries are more racially diverse, that increases the likelihood that potential racism is discussed. What’s more, social science research indicates that all-white juries convict black defendants significantly more often than white defendants.

In my view, in capital murder cases, an all-white jury combined with white support for the death penalty stacks the odds against black male defendants like Rodney Reed.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.