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USA: New report shows racist bias in death sentencing

Blacks and whites are victims of murder in almost equal numbers in the USA, but 80 per cent of those executed since the death penalty resumed in 1977 were put to death for murders involving white victims.

Most murders in the USA involve perpetrators and victims of the same race, yet nearly 200 African Americans have been executed for the murder of white victims. This is 15 times as many as the number of whites put to death for killing blacks, and at least twice as many as the number of blacks executed for the murder of other blacks.

More than 840 people have been executed since 1977. African Americans account for more than 40 per cent of people on death row and one in three of those executed. Yet they make up only 12 per cent of the population.

Amnesty International expressed concern that the composition of juries, with prosecutors dismissing ethnic minority jurors, was leading to racial bias in death sentencing.

Kate Allen, Amnesty International UK Director, said:

'At least one in five of the African Americans executed since 1977, and a quarter of the blacks put to death for killing whites, were tried in front of all-white juries. Are we really to believe that this happened for non-discriminatory reasons?

'President Bush has promised that the United States will always stand firm for equal justice. If that is true, he and other politicians must call an immediate halt to executions, when studies consistently indicate that the justice system places a higher value on white life than on black'.

Cases show a pattern of prosecutors dismissing minority jurors during jury selection. Prospective jurors may only be excluded for 'race neutral' reasons in US capital trials, but this protection only catches the most overtly racist tactics. Even in the absence of questionable dismissals, however, defendants have faced jury pools in which minorities are under-represented in the first place.

Kate Allen said: 'US capital juries do not represent the community because death penalty opponents are kept off them. This is compounded where, for whatever reason, members of minority communities are under-represented in the pools from which jurors are selected'.

Recent research into the attitudes of capital jurors indicates that racial stereotyping can taint deliberations, and that the racial mix of juries can play a role in the outcome of capital trials. Two black prisoners were executed last month despite allegations that the solitary African American on each of their juries was singled out for pressure by white jurors to change their vote from life to death.

Kate Allen added: 'The USA committed to work against racism and its effects eight years ago, when it ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. This includes racism in the justice system.

'There has been a failure of human rights leadership regarding use of the death penalty. The Bush administration allowed federal executions to resume in 2001 and to continue this year despite having failed to explain racial disparities in federal capital sentencing.'

Appeals against death penalty decisions have revealed numerous errors in both conviction and sentencing stages of trials. A landmark study released last year concluded that race is one of the factors that feed the high error rate in capital cases.

Kate Allen said: 'US courts are clearly failing to rule out bias, including that caused by conscious or unconscious racism among the decision-makers in capital cases. Because of the tough-on-crime politics of the death penalty, executive clemency is not the safety net it is supposed to be.

'The USA continues to execute people under a system tainted by discrimination and error. At the same time it proclaims itself a global human rights champion. This is the height of hypocrisy. The death penalty must be abolished before more people are unfairly executed.'


Maryland Senators last month rejected a bill to impose a moratorium on executions in the light of a recent study showing significant racial bias in Maryland's capital sentencing, specifically that those who kill whites are more likely to receive a death sentence.

When outgoing Illinois governor George Ryan commuted the death sentences of 167 people in January, he cited the failure of past Illinois legislatures to fix the state's problems with the death penalty. He stressed that these flaws went beyond Illinois's notorious record of wrongful convictions, and into questions of arbitrariness, with race being one of the ingredients.

A 1987 US Supreme Court ruling, McCleskey v Kemp, remains a huge obstacle for legal challenges to death sentences on the grounds of racial bias in capital sentencing. In 2001, for example, a federal court referred to the racial disparities on Ohio's death row as 'extremely troubling', but felt unable to offer any remedy because of the McCleskey precedent. A United Nations expert has said that the McCleskey ruling may be incompatible with the USA's obligations under CERD.

Amnesty International's report, USA: Death by discrimination - the continuing role of race in capital cases, is available online.

Further information about our campaign against the death penalty is also available online.

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