News 02.20.15

New Report: U.S. Death Penalty is Rooted in Lynching Past

In an article discussing Attorney General Eric Holder’s recent call for a death penalty moratorium —which was based in part on the risk of executing the innocent — the Atlanta Black Star writes about the Equal Justice Initiative’s (EJI) new report which links the United States capital punishment system to its history of racially motivated lynchings in the South.

 

According to the Atlanta Black Star, the report, released earlier this month, notes that black people are disproportionately affected by the death penalty in the United States. Forty-two percent of inmates currently on death row and 34 percent of those executed since 1976 were black, although black people make up only 13 percent of the nation’s population.

“As early as the 1920s, lynchings were disfavored because of the ‘bad press’ they garnered,” the report states, according to the Star. “Southern legislatures shifted to capital punishment so that legal and ostensibly unbiased court proceedings could serve the same purpose as vigilante violence: satisfying the lust for revenge,” says the report.

In 1972 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Georgia’s death penalty statute after the NAACP Legal Defense Fund successfully argued that capital punishment is unconstitutionally racially biased. The Star report that many Southerners were unhappy with the court’s decision. Four years later, the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, claiming it was necessary to avoid vigilante justice, according to the report.

The Star writes:

“Capital trials today remain proceedings with little racial diversity; the accused is often the only person of color in the courtroom and illegal racial discrimination in jury selection is widespread, especially in the South and in capital cases,” the EJI report says. “In Houston County, Alabama, prosecutors have excluded 80 percent of qualified African Americans from juries in death penalty cases.”

 

Proving how much capital punishment is “a direct descendant of lynching,” the EJI said more than eight in 10 American lynchings between 1889 and 1918 occurred in the South, and more than eight in 10 of the nearly 1,400 legal executions carried out in this country since 1976 have been in the South.



Read the full article

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Read the Equal Justice Initiative report

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