The United States is on an
execution rampage. Since capital
punishment was reinstated by
the Supreme Court in the 1976
Gregg v. Georgia decision, more
than 525 men and women have
been put to death by the state.
More than 150 of these
executions have taken place
since 1996. 3,500 people are on
death row today, awaiting their
turn with theCapital punishment has existed
throughout most of the course
of our nation’s history. By the
mid-1960s, however, public
opposition to the death penalty
had reached an all-time high, and the
practice was banned by the Supreme
Court in the 1972 Furman v. Georgia
decision. The Court held that state death
penalty statutes were devoid of any
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Regardless of one’s viewpoint about the
morality or constitutionality of the death
penalty, most people would agree that if we
are going to continue executing people in
the U.S., we should be doing it fairly and
rationally. However, three factors,
unrelated to the crime itself, greatly
influence who gets executed and who does
not: poverty, race and geography.
Lethal Injection for the Poor — The
American Bar Association and many
scholars have found that what most often
determines whether or not a death
sentence is handed down is not the facts of
the crime, but the quality of the legal
representation. The overwhelming
majority of death row inmates receive
substandard legal representation at trial.
Almost all capital-crime defendants are
indigent when arrested, and are generally
represented by court-appointed lawyers,
who are inexperienced and underpaid. The
National Law Journal, reviewing capital
cases in six Southern states, reported that
defense lawyers are often “ill-trained,
unprepared... [and] grossly underpaid.”
Defending a capital case is timeconsuming,
taking about 700-1000 hours.
In some jurisdictions the hourly rates for
appointed attorneys in capital cases are less
than the minimum wage, and usually much
less than the lawyer’s hourly expenses.
Moreover, courts often authorize
inadequate funds for investigation and
experts — or refuse to do so altogether.
This is in the face of the almost limitless
such funding for the prosecution. Wealthy
people who can hire their own counsel are
generally spared the death penalty, no
matter how heinous their crimes. Poor
people do not have the same opportunity
to buy their lives.
Racial Bias Permeates the System —
Death row in the U.S. has always held a
disproportionately large population of
people of color relative to the general
population. Whereas African Americans
constitute 12% of the U.S. population,
they are 35% of those on death row; 9%
are Native American, Latino or Asian.
The most important factor in levying the
death penalty, however, is the race of the
victim. (Those who kill a white person are
more likely to receive the death penalty
than those who kill a black person.)
A 1998 report by the Death Penalty
Information Center summarizes the
findings of several scholars which illustrate
this point. In 96% of the studies
examining the relationship between race
and the death penalty there was a...