||It is easy for many to cheer the execution of Daniel Lewis Lee by the federal government. The first federal execution in seventeen years. Lee was convicted of the murder torture of a family of three. He is a one-time avowed white supremacist. He’s not exactly the poster boy for what’s wrong with the feds getting back in the death penalty business. Yet, Lee is in aberration. He is white.Repeated studies have confirmed that the death penalty is riddled with racial bias. The first conducted nearly two decades ago by then Attorney General Janet Reno found that Blacks make-up nearly half of those condemned to death by federal courts. Latinos and other minorities also make up a disproportionate number of those condemned to death. Worse, the ranks of those on federal death rows are growing, and many of them are minority. Other studies have found that the overwhelming majority of those that all the federal capital cases recommended by U.S. Attorneys to the Attorney General seeking the death penalty are minority, with a disproportionate number being African-American.
|The real danger then is that the Lee execution gives the false sense that the federal executions and those that are executed will be men like Lewis and that there is no racial bias in federal executions. That’s certainly the impression Attorney General William Barr meant to convey when he almost gleefully said that Lewis ‘deserved” the punishment that he got.
Before the Lewis execution, the only hope for the other condemned men on federal death rows was a moratorium. There were moves at times in Congress to introduce legislation for a national moratorium. Polls have shown that more Americans than in the past decade oppose capital punishment, and a majority say that DNA testing should be available to all prisoners. Yet even with the smoking gun proof that the death penalty is a virtual legal racial license there’s no chance with Barr and the trump administration cheerleading the return of the federal death penalty that more executions won’t quickly follow.
There are two disturbing reasons why there is little present hope for action to scrap thee federal death penalty. One is publicly stated: fear of crime. Even though crime figures are way down, the fear of crime 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, politicians who pander to crime fears to get votes, and a Supreme Court that still flatly rejects any reconsideration 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 white 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. When the crime (or accusation) is rape, the death penalty has almost always been exclusively reserved for blacks. Of the 453 men executed for rape since 1930, 405 have been Black. Nearly all of them were executed in the South.
They were arrested and convicted on the flimsiest evidence, usually no more than the word of a white woman. At the same time, not one white man received the death penalty for raping a black woman. There is no official record in any Southern state of a Black man ever being executed for raping a Black woman. The victims nearly as all of the Blacks executed in the South from 1930 through 1984 were white. Not much has changed over the years. A Black is still eleven times more likely to get the death penalty then a white when the victim is white.
At present nearly half of those currently sitting on the nation’s death rows are Black. And that number has remained steady for three decades. The only real change in the top heavy racial make-up of death row prisoners is the jump in the number of Latinos awaiting execution. In Texas and California, the runaway leaders in the number of prisoners on death row, a significant number of the condemned are Latinos. The same glaring racial bias that ensures many Black men wind up on death row also ensnares Latinos.
The federal execution of Lee was of course cheered by Barr and Trump. They were backed by the conservative majority on the SCOTUS. However, the one faint hope is that four liberal SCOTUS justices did not go along with the rush to execute Lee. This bodes well for a 2020 regime change in the White House. If so, a major order of business for a new Democratic administration if it’s really concerned with ridding the criminal justice system of its colossal racial bias, would be to once and for all get the federal government out of the death penalty business.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of Why Black Lives Do Matter (Middle Passage Press). He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.