Answering the hard problems: Race and the death penalty

“By reserving the penalty of death for black defendants . . . or for those convicted of killing white persons, we perpetuate the ugly legacy of slavery – teaching our children that some lives are inherently less precious than others.”-Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, Former President, Southern Christian Leadership Conference

Since 1977, the overwhelming majority of death row defendants (80%) have been executed for killing white victims, although whites make up only 50% percent of all homicide victims. In a 1990 report, the non-partisan U.S. General Accounting Office found “a pattern of evidence indicating racial disparities in the charging, sentencing, and imposition of the death penalty.”

A North Carolina study, based on data from 502 murders occurring between 1993 and 1997 found that defendants whose victims are white are 3.5 times more likely to be sentenced to death than those with non-white victims.

Underlying the statistical evidence is the differential treatment of African-Americans at every turn:

  • All of Tennessee’s District Attorneys General are white. These are the people who decide whether or not to seek the death penalty.
  • African Americans make up 43% of Tennessee’s death row population but only 17% of its total population.
  • African Americans make up 35% of those executed in the U.S. since 1976.

Race in Tennessee Death Penalty Cases

E.J. Harbison, a poor, African- American man with no prior criminal record, was sentenced to death in 1983 for his role in the murder of Edith Russell, an elderly, white woman. Although the state claimed the murder was premeditated, Harbison did not carry a weapon; Russell was killed with her own vase during the botched burglary.

Erskine Johnson was convicted by an all-white jury in Memphis, a city with a majority black population. Although half a dozen black witnesses testified that Johnson was in St. Louis at the time of the crime, the jury relied on largely circumstantial evidence and coerced testimony from supposed co-defendants and sentenced him to death.

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