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Racial Bias Should Mean an End to the Death Penalty in Missouri

Black Lives Matter: Missouri Should Follow Washington Supreme Court and Strike Down Ultimate Discrimination

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On October 11th,  the Washington Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional because, in part, “it is imposed in a … racially biased manner.”  In the case of State v. Gregory, the Court recognized racial discrimination pervades the application of the death penalty. Research from Katherine Beckett demonstrated that capital punishment proceedings involving black defendants were between 3.5 and 4.6 times more likely to result in a death sentence as proceedings involving non-black defendants.  This is a fundamentally racist and broken system. Washington’s death penalty laws have been declared unconstitutional not once, not twice, but three times, State v. Baker, 501 P.2d 284 (1972); State v. Green, 588 P.2d 1370 (1979); State v. Frampton, 627 P.2d 922 (1981).

This  great victory in Washington State to abolish this unjust and inhumane practice highlights the need to to call upon the State of Missouri to end capital punishment, which functions in the same racially discriminatory manner. According to the Court, “Given the evidence before this court and our judicial notice of implicit and overt racial bias against black defendants in this state, we are confident that the association between race and the death penalty is not attributed to random chance.” State President of the Missouri Conference of the NAACP, Nimrod Chapel, Jr., was quoted as saying, “For too long the criminal justice system has been misused.  This has cost the system its integrity and we must stop counting the losses to our communities of color in bodies.”

Research provided by Frank Baumgartner of The University of North Carolina Chapel Hill (2015), illuminates the fact that Missouri’s use of the death penalty has been marked by, “substantial disparities by the race and gender of the victim of the crime, and geography.”  Some highlights from his study include:

  1. African Americans make up 11% of the Missouri population, yet they are sentenced to death in 39% of cases and make up 39% of executions.

  2. In Missouri, homicides involving White victims are 7x more likely to result in an execution than those involving African Americans.

  3. Homicides involving White female victims are nearly 14x more likely to result in an execution than those involving African American male victims.

These disparities are so great they call into question the equity of the application of the harshest penalty. The Washington Supreme Court is the third state supreme court to strike down the death penalty in part on concerns about the inherent racial disparities, joining Massachusetts (1980) and Connecticut (2015).

Concerns about the unfair application of the death penalty, along with the failure to protect innocent and the high cost of the death penalty, have caused decision makers and the public to increasingly turn from the death penalty. Of the 30 states that retain the death penalty, three have official governor moratoriums and several more have de facto moratoriums; 10 states that authorize the death penalty have not had an execution in the last decade.

For more information about racial disparity in Missouri capital cases you can view Frank Baumgartner’s study here: The Impact of Race, Gender, and Geography on Missouri Executions .

For more information about the Washington State report click here: The Role of Race in Washington State Capitol Sentencing.

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