Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Dylann S. Roof is an avowed white supremacist. He wantonly, brazenly, and unapologetically slaughtered nine African-Americans in a South Carolina church in 2015. He’s under a federal death sentence. He’s the kind of heinous mass murderer that almost no one other than maybe his mother could have an ounce of human sympathy for. Few would say that if anyone ever deserved the death penalty for his monstrous act it was him.
Now, if Attorney General William Barr has his way Roof will eventually get exactly what many cheer that he get. Barr has announced that he’ll jumpstart the feds back in the death penalty business. A business it in effect has been out of since 2003. Five federal prisoners under death sentence are scheduled to be executed in December and January. They shouldn’t be and neither should Roof. They shouldn’t be for reasons that former President Obama said he was deeply troubled by in the application of the death penalty in the U.S. He directed then Attorney General Eric Holder to review the problems with it. Killing a murderous white hate mongerer will only give cover to slap the federal death penalty on those who have been the single biggest target of it, and that’s Blacks.
Since the reinstatement of the federal death penalty in 1988, various U.S. attorneys general have sought the death penalty for several hundred defendants. The overwhelming majority of those defendants have been non-white. The majority of them have been African-American (more than half). The standard pro-death penalty push back in these cases is that Blacks supposedly commit more frequent and heinous crimes than whites and therefore deserve to get a death sentence.
This is nonsense. Death sentences are sought by local federal prosecutors and imposed by juries. The prosecutors that seek them the most are concentrated in a relative handful of districts. When prosecutors in those districts seek the death penalty in a case this automatically expands the jury pool from the residents within the county where the crime was committed to the residents of the considerably larger federal judicial district that encompasses it. This almost always ensures that a capital case jury will be predominantly white and as countless studies on juror bias have shown, juries with few or no blacks are more prone to convict when the defendant is minority, and especially Black, and impose the death penalty. The result is predictable. More than sixty percent of those on federal death row are non-white and in almost all cases their victims were white.
The grotesque racial misapplication of the death penalty was underscored more than a decade ago by Barr’s Justice Department in its own assessment of the death penalty. It found that between 1995 and 2000, 80% of all cases in which a U.S. Attorney requested permission to seek the death penalty involved a minority group defendant; 72% of the cases where the Attorney General authorized a capital prosecution involved minority group defendants; and U.S. Attorneys sought death-authorization twice as often in cases involving black defendants and non-black victims as in cases involving black defendants and black victims. The gaping racial unfairness in the federal death penalty prompted a flurry of congressional bills at the time to either abolish or put a moratorium on the federal death penalty. They went nowhere.
The two disturbing reasons for that remain unchanged. One is publicly stated: fear of crime. Even though crime figures are way down, the fear of crime still remains high despite the plunge in crime figures. isn’t. That fear is fueled by high-profile shooting rampages, a crime-gorged media that stuffs the public with mega-doses of crime and violence stories, and many politicians who still pander to crime fears to get votes, and a Supreme Court that still flatly rejects any far-reaching consideration of the death penalty.
The other far more frightening reason why the death penalty is still alive and well is privately whispered: race. The death penalty has always been America’s ultimate legal weapon against Black men accused of violent acts (mostly against whites). According to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund which has meticulously tracked the obscene racial disparity in the death penalty for decades, found that more than half of all those executed have been African-Americans. In the states, Blacks are still far more likely to get the death penalty then a white when the victim is white. As the figures horridly show, the federal government has hardly been immune to imposing the death penalty on blacks when their victims are white.
The Justice Department study more than a decade ago called the federal death penalty hopelessly flawed and tainted with racial bias. It’s worse than that. It’s a terribly racially warped punishment reserved almost exclusively for blacks and Latinos.
By openly admitting that there were “problems” with the death penalty, Obama opened another dark corner of the criminal justice system that screams for reform. That reform is to get the federal government out of the deeply racially tainted death penalty business. Killing Roof won’t make that business any cleaner.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the author of Why Black Lives Do Matter (Middle Passage Press). He is host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on Pacifica Radio.