How race still plays a role in a guilty verdict
In 2008, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles reversed their decision to execute Samuel Crowe two hours before his scheduled execution time. Three years later, the Board did not reverse their controversial decision to execute Troy Davis. Both men committed crimes in Georgia. Both men were convicted of first-degree murder. Both men’s pleas were heard by the same board.
The only difference: Crowe confessed to his crime after nearly 20 years in prison, while Davis maintained his innocence until his death. That, and Davis was black.
The 13th, 14th and 15th amendments may have been ratified nearly 150 years ago, but the United States is still not free from racial bias. Disturbingly, it may be within the practices of the criminal justice system that this is most apparent.
“The empirical evidence is overwhelmingly persuasive,” said Dr. Samuel Sommers, a Tufts University psychologist specializing in race, psychology and law. “In juries, charging decisions, outcomes of cases and death penalty sentencing, race plays a statistically meaningful role.”
The U.S. Bureau of Justice found in 2006, 4.8 percent of all black males in the United States were imprisoned compared with 0.7 percent of all white males. Between 1976 and 2011, 17 white men were convicted of murders of black men and executed, while 255 black men were convicted of murders of white men and executed. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, black defendants who murder white victims are 3.9 times more likely to be sentenced to death than white defendants in the same position. Most theories explaining the prominent role race still plays in the justice system, however, find their basis in the actions of society at large.
“Despite the press, this is not a ‘post-racial’ society,’” said John Blume, director of the Cornell Death Penalty Project, a Cornell University program that produces research regarding the death penalty and brings prominent speakers to campus.
Amnesty International was one of the key players in the resistance against Davis’ execution. Wayles Brown, treasurer of the local Ithaca chapter of Amnesty, said the three white members of the five-person parole board that sentenced Davis were probably prejudiced — “not against all black people, but against black criminal defendants.”
The board, which included two black men, two white men and one white woman, refused to disclose the breakdown of votes that denied Davis’ clemency, further fueling the debate over his guilt.
Blume’s colleague at the Cornell Death Penalty Project, Sheri Lynn Johnson, said race “affects who is stopped, it affects who is charged, who is released on their own recognizance, who is offered a deal and who is charged with death.”
Since 1973, 71 black death-row inmates (out of 138) have been proven innocent and taken off death row. This is more than 50 percent, despite blacks making up only 12 percent of the U.S. population. Those men and women will probably never have a definitive ruling as to what truly led to their incarceration, but that doesn’t mean that nothing can be done to lessen the influence of race on criminal sentencing.
“Improvements can be made, particularly reversing convictions where race has played a role in the criminal defense lawyer, the prosecutor or the juror’s decision,” Johnson said.
But shattering the barrier of silence is the first step toward limiting racial bias in the justice system. It’s only after witnesses to racial injustice speak out that they can begin to combat the prevailing attitudes of apathy and ignorance.
Many people either don’t realize — or refuse to realize — that racism still runs rampant in the United States. Black Americans have double the unemployment rates than their white colleagues. Black households are worth $60,000 less than their white neighbors. Black students have less access to quality schools, resources and teachers than white students. Because of ignorance, guilt or apathy, nothing is really being done about these disparities. Discussions of race — let alone of racial inequality — have become taboo, and what’s emerged is the idea that if we don’t talk about it, it’s not there.
But that’s not the way it works: Even within Ithaca’s city limits, racism, violence and the law work together in a disturbingly symbiotic relationship. At the end of August, State Street played host to the fatal shooting of a black man by a white Ithaca police officer. According to the Ithaca Police Department, the attacker was exceptionally violent, and the attack was unprovoked.
We may never know if the officer was justified in taking this action because only a handful of articles even broached the topic. Awareness is the first step we can take to eliminate racial injustice in the justice system. Yet it’s not being taken at a local level, and it’s not being acknowledged on a national level. Until it is, the only thing we can be sure of is that Troy Davis won’t be the last man to walk into a courtroom and be reduced to the color of his skin.
Kaitlin Hulbert is a freshman IMC major who wants to start the conversation. Email her at khulber2[at]ithaca.edu.