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Execution Raising Racial Justice Concerns Proceeded, Despite Public Outcry

Andre Cole was an African-American man who was tried and sentenced to death by an all-white jury in St. Louis County. Despite the systemic exclusion of African-American jurors from his trial, Mr. Cole was executed on April 14. It is no coincidence that St. Louis County embraces the City of Ferguson, which is characterized by its publically condemned and racially biased law enforcement and prosecutorial practices. Nor is it a coincidence that St. Louis County ranks 9th among all counties in the U.S. in the number of murder convictions leading to executions.

Unfortunately, the treatment of Mr. Cole is part of a larger pattern and practice of racially charged prosecutions. Last year, Missouri executed Herbert Smulls, an African-American who was also sentenced to death by an all-white jury in St. Louis County in 1992. Kimber Edwards, also African-American, originally faced execution on May 12. (His date was rescinded by the Missouri Supreme Court, due to concerns regarding his attorneys’ schedule). He too was convicted by an all-white jury in St. Louis County. In each of these cases, prosecutors challenged the participation of African-Americans in the jury, striking eligible panelists from service.

Race plays a significant role in the application of the death penalty. Studies from the General Accounting Office, and elsewhere, consistently demonstrate that the single most reliable predictor of whether someone will be sentenced to death is the race of the victim. A 2007 study by Yale University Law School revealed that African-American defendants receive the death penalty at three times the rate of white defendants in cases where the victims are white. Death by discrimination holds no place in a rational, fair or accurate system of justice.

In Missouri, over 40% of the individuals on death row are African-American. Yet, African-Americans only constitute 12% of the state’s population. An exhaustive review of the death penalty in Missouri, conducted in 2005, found that African-Americans accused of killing white victims were five times more likely to be charged with capital murder than African-Americans accused of killing African-American victims.

The murder of Anthony Curtis, and the attack on Andre Cole’s ex-wife are tragic. Yet, a civilized society recognizes that death penalty is not meant to be used upon people, based on racial considerations. The State of Missouri’s execution of Andre Cole has diminished us all and once again calls into question Missouri’s understanding that black lives matter.

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