It has long been established that the death penalty in this country is racially unequal. Minorities are more likely to be sentenced to the death penalty: 42 percent of those on death row right now are black, while they make up just 12 percent of the country. Meanwhile, only 43 percent of death row inmates are white, significantly lower than the 65 percent white population nationwide.
But the racial disparity is even more pronounced when you look at the race of the victim, as murderer is much more likely to get the death penalty if the victim is white. Black Americans are almost eight times as likely as white ones to be homicide victims. But almost 75 percent inmates currently on death row were convicted of killing white people, compared to only 15 percent where victims were black.
Nowhere is the death penalty’s racial inequality more apparent than Louisiana. The state has the dubious distinction of
incarcerating more people having a higher incarceration rate than any other state in the nation, which is particularly notable given that the U.S. incarcerates more people than any other country on earth.
Now, a new study of race in Louisiana's capital convictions and executions lays out exactly how racist these death penalty convictions are.
According to the study, published in Loyola University of New Orleans’ Journal of Public Interest Law fall 2015 edition, in Louisiana "the ultimate punishment has long been reserved for crimes other than killing black men."
Being a victim of homicide in Louisiana is heavily dependent on race, gender, and age. Young black males have extremely high rates of homicide victimization compared to other categories. However, the death penalty is used only very rarely in those cases where the victim is a black male.
The study shows that 72 percent of homicide victims in Louisiana are black, yet their killers have been executed in only eight cases out of 12,949 homicides since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.
This 2015 review of national statistics covering all US executions since 1976 notes that only 10 whites have been executed in the modern era for the crime of killing a black male, with six additional cases where a black male was one of multiple victims, including victims of other races or genders. None of these cases were from Louisiana.
In other words, a white man has never once, in all of Louisiana’s history, been executed for killing a black man.
The study shows that gender matters when it comes to both sentencing and execution, especially when the victim was a white woman.
[W]hile Black males constitute 61 percent of the victims of homicides, they are just 8 percent of the victims of those who were later executed. White females, by contrast, represent 7 percent of the overall victims, but 47 percent of those for whom the murderer was in turn put to death. […]
The killer of a white female is 12 times more likely to be sentenced to death, and 48 times more likely to be executed, than the killer of a black male.
Homicides where the victim was a black male almost never result in the death penalty. In fact, the execution rate in cases with black male victims is less than 6 percent of the execution rate for convicted killers of all other victims.
The death penalty is expensive, disturbingly fallible (remember Glenn Ford?), barbaric, and racist. Yet, Louisiana prosecutors continue to call for capital punishment. Ideally, capital punishment would be struck down once again by the Supreme Court. But, at the very least, the disproportionate impact of the death penalty on blacks should be deemed a constitutional violation.
But the Supreme Court has ruled otherwise. In 1991, the Court ruled in McClesky v. Kemp that racial disparate impact is not a clear constitutional violation unless one proves a racially disparate purpose. The ruling, considered one of the court's worst, makes it extremely difficult to prove what the numbers clearly show — that the death penalty is racist, and not just in Louisiana.