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​​​​​​​Race Considerations 1

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Race Considerations

As was mentioned above, the Torture Convention forbids the infliction of pain and suffering "based on discrimination of any kind." The death penalty in the United States has a long history of racial discrimination, and is therefore suspect under the Torture Convention.

The fact that race played a significant role in the imposition of the death penalty contributed to the United States Supreme Court's finding that the death penalty was being unconstitutionally applied in 1972. Subsequent revision of state laws convinced a majority of the Supreme Court that the arbitrary and capricious quality of capital punishment laws could be remedied and executions were allowed to continue.

The problem of racial disparities in the application of the death penalty has not, however, been eliminated. African-Americans are sentenced to death and are executed in far greater numbers than their proportion in the U.S. population as a whole. Those who receive the death penalty have almost exclusively been convicted of committing a crime against a white person. Eighty-three percent of the executions carried out since 1976 have involved the murder of a white victim, even though whites are victims in less than 50 percent of the murders committed in the U.S. When both race of defendant and race of victim figures are examined, the statistics are even more glaring. Since 1976, 117 black defendants have been executed for the murder of a white victim, but only 8 white defendants have been executed for the murder of a black victim. Indeed, in the entire history of the U.S., there have only been approximately 38 whites executed for murdering a black person.

In 1990, the U.S. General Accounting Office conducted a review of such studies and concluded that reliable studies showed: "those who murdered whites were found to be more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered blacks." 

Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, who voted to uphold the death penalty both in 1972 when it was halted, and in 1976 when it was reinstated, recently concluded that racial discrimination continues to infect the practice of the death penalty: "Even under the most sophisticated death penalty statutes, race continues to play a major role in determining who shall live and who shall die."

Recent studies further confirm the persistent pattern of racial discrimination in the U.S. death penalty. A systematic analysis in Philadelphia by award-winning researchers David Baldus and George Woodworth revealed that the odds of receiving a death sentence are nearly four times (3.9) higher if the defendant is black. These results were obtained after analyzing and controlling for case differences such as the severity of the crime and the background of the defendant.

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