It’s Time to Get Real About Race and the Death Penalty

By Andy Hoover, Legislative Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

SQ Lethal Injection Room

Two weeks ago, Governor Wolf announced a moratorium on executions in Pennsylvania and granted a reprieve from execution to Terrance Williams, who was scheduled to be executed on March 4. Wolf will continue granting reprieves- a power he is granted by law – until an analysis commissioned by the state Senate returns with its recommendations and “all concerns are addressed satisfactorily.”

In his announcement of the moratorium, Wolf referred to capital punishment as “unjust” and cited several reasons for using the word. In his memorandum that explained the moratorium, he spent several paragraphs discussing the role of race in capital punishment.

Death penalty abolitionists don’t use race as one of their top tier messages, and who can blame them? A 2007 survey found that support for capital punishment actually goes up when white respondents hear messages of racial disparity. White America is still sticking its collective fingers in its ears when it comes to race and the criminal justice system.

Pennsylvania has consistently shown a penchant for sentencing black defendants to death. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, of the 188 people on death row in the commonwealth, 120 of them, or 64 percent, are people of color, as of October 1, 2014. Over the 15 years that I have been involved in death penalty repeal work, that number has been as high as 70 percent.

A study by Professor David Baldus and his colleagues at the University of Iowa found that a black defendant in Philadelphia was 3.9 times more likely to receive a death sentence than a white defendant in a similar case.

The Baldus study was 17 years ago and was based on data from 1983 to 1993. As part of the Senate-supported analysis, researchers are trying to update the question of race and the death penalty in Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, according to one of my sources, at least one high-profile district attorney stymied that work for months by refusing to release data from his county on race in capital cases. He was ultimately persuaded but only after much cajoling. Some public officials just don’t want to talk about facts in the death penalty debate.

The race of the victim may play an even greater role in deciding who lives and who dies. Homicide victims are white in about 50 percent cases. But since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, the victims were white in 76 percent of cases that ended in execution.

There are many reasons why capital punishment is slowly being swept into the dustbin of history. Since 2007, six states have repealed their death penalty statutes, bringing the total of non-death states to 18. In 2014, only seven states carried out executions, and 80 percent of those were in three states. Governor Wolf did the right thing in bringing a halt to the machinery of death, and he used the right word to describe it- unjust.

To learn more about the debate over Pennsylvania’s moratorium on executions, check out the discussion on WITF-FM’s Smart Talk, which featured Spero Lappas, who is a member of the ACLU of PA’s South Central Chapter board, a retired criminal defense attorney, and former cooperating counsel with ACLU-PA.

Andy Hoover is the legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania and is the former chair of the board of Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

This blog post is part of a series for Black History Month.