Now, abolish the death penalty

By: Kathleen M. Mullin
Friday, April 27, 2012

Last week’s landmark legal ruling which found that racial discrimination had tainted the death penalty trial of Marcus Robinson resulted in Robinson’s being spared execution and being resentenced to life imprisonment. At long last, the ruling itself recognized the overwhelmingly pervasive and prejudicial role that race plays in the administration of justice, which is certainly not blind.

For those of us working in the criminal justice system, representing defendants at trial, the concept that race plays a role in process and the outcome is certainly not new. We already know that generally speaking, a defendant is more likely to receive the death penalty where the victim is white and even more likely where the defendant is black and the victim is white.

In Louisiana, a death sentence is nearly twice as likely in cases where the victim is white compared to cases where the victim is black. A study of capital murder trials in California found that cases involving a white victim were over three times more likely to result in death sentences than cases involving black victims and over four times more likely than cases involving Latino victims. Bureau of Justice Statistics reveal that of the 178 defendants executed between January 1977 and the end of 1995, all but three had been convicted of murdering a white victim. 

In short, the numbers confirm that the death penalty is all but entirely reserved for murderers who kill white victims.

In all things, race matters. But in the death penalty, it is dispositive. And at last, for the first time in our history, a North Carolina court agreed, and said that just isn’t fair.

This ruling was a victory not only for Marcus Robinson but for death penalty abolitionists in North Carolina and beyond. In finding that racial bias was a significant factor in the imposition of the death penalty, Judge Gregory A. Weeks’ decision signals a growing legal recognition of the reality of racial bias and the role it plays in our justice system, particularly in death penalty trials. With substantial evidence that the imposition of the death penalty depends significantly on the race of the defendant and the race of the victim, it is unconscionable to condone its continued use.

North Carolina has made history. The Robinson decision holds the promise of ending the death penalty in this state. And with this victory in hand, abolitionists can and will fan out across state lines into the 33 remaining jurisdictions with an active death penalty and doggedly demonstrate the dispositive role of racial bias in the application of the country’s harshest penalty.

State by state, case by case, the Robinson victory and the progeny of cases to come in states across the country will affirm the bedrock of our democracy and enforce the fundamental principles that justice must be blind and liberty and truly blind justice must be available, free from racial bias, for all.