A few weeks ago, I was sitting in the office of a state representative, and the topic of capital punishment came up in conversation. This particular representative, who is young and white, said that he turned into an abolitionist when he realized the impact of race on death sentencing, particularly the race of the victim.
As he said that, his office suitemate, another young state representative who is black, walked into the office. The first representative asked, “Do you know that if someone kills me they are more likely to get the death penalty than if they kill you?” His colleague replied, “Yeah, because you’re white. No one cares if a black guy gets shot.”
The statistics bear them out. Since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, after a four year national moratorium, 77 percent of the victims in cases that led to executions were white. But white people are the victims in 50 percent of homicides. (See the website of the Death Penalty Information Center. )
Juries’ penchant for using the death penalty disproportionately in response to the murder of white victims is an expression of America’s shadow side that has plagued us since the first settlers arrived on these shores. Too many Americans value the lives of the majority population far more than the lives of people of color.
When I got involved in anti-death penalty activism 13 years ago, I did it simply because I thought the idea of the government murdering people was wrong. But my opposition gained depth when I learned how dysfunctional the capital punishment system is.
Despite the attempts of supporters to explain away the problems, the death penalty is poor public policy. Since 2007, five states have repealed the death penalty, and Maryland may follow suit this year. It’s well past time for Pennsylvania to do the same.
---Andy Hoover, Legislative Director, ACLU of PA