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The Death Penalty is Arbitrary and Racist

The Death Penalty is Arbitrary and Racist: © dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo

© dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo

Injustice in American policing and imprisonment is inextricably tied to racism. The Richard Glossip case, though, at first appears to be an exception. Glossip’s treatment has been horribly arbitrary and unfair. But that unfairness doesn’t seem to be about race.

Glossip is white; he is on death row in Oklahoma for the 1997 murder of Barry Van Teese, the owner of a motel that Glossip managed. The maintenance man, 19-year-old Justin Sneed, confessed to murdering Van Teese with a baseball bat. Sneed claimed that Glossip paid him to commit the murder. In return for fingering Glossip, Sneed escaped death row.

As The Intercept reports, there is virtually no evidence against Glossip except Sneed’s confession. Multiple witnesses including Sneed’s daughter have testified that his implication of Glossip was false. Despite that, and despite evidence of inadequate counsel, the courts have refused to consider new evidence of Glossip’s innocence.

His execution has been put on hold several times because of doubts about the constitutionality of Oklahoma’s lethal injections. An execution recently was stayed at the last minute by Gov. Mary Fallin because of concerns that the state had obtained the wrong lethal drugs.

It’s clear that the legal system egregiously failed Glossip. A likely innocent man faces execution because of an apparent combination of prosecutorial recklessness, the use of a self-interested and unreliable witness, and an incompetent defense. In addition to all of these injustices, Glossip has run foul of the death penalty’s racial biases.

Glossip himself is white. But so was Barry Van Teese. And the death penalty is disproportionately used in cases where the victim is white. Frank Baumgartner, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told me that, “There have been fewer than 10 executions since 1976 for crimes committed by white inmates where the victim was an African-American male.”

Baumgartner was the chief author on a paper published this year that examined the demographics of victims in all death penalty executions from 1976 to 2013. The paper notes that defendants with white victims are four times as likely to be sentenced to death as those with black victims. Some states that regularly perform executions, like Florida, have never sentenced a white man to death for killing a black man.

Blacks convicted of murdering a white person are disproportionately likely to face the death penalty. Between 1975 and 2005 Baumgartner’s research found 17 white inmates were executed for killing black people, while 230 black inmates were executed for killing white people. He reports that 108 black inmates were executed for killing black victims. This is especially striking because 85 percent of homicides by black murderers have victims of the same race.

Prosectuors, juries and judges in the United States are eager, and over-eager, to sentence people to death for killing white people.

“If the victim in the case had been an African-American male, would Glossip be on death row?” Baumgartner asked when I spoke to him, answering, “It would have been unlikely.“

The main injustice in Glossip’s case is that he’s probably an innocent man. But thinking about the racial aspects of the case is useful for a couple of reasons.

First, recognizing that Glossip is being executed in part because of the race of the man who was killed helps to highlight the arbitrariness of the system in which he has been caught. Prosecutors are motivated to seek the death penalty for Byzantine reasons that have more to do with prejudices and preconceptions than with impartial justice.

In death penalty cases, Baumgartner says, "Racial disparities are huge. Motivated testimony by accomplices is widely used. And it has not yielded a system where the ‘worst of the worst’ end up paying the ultimate priced. It amounts to a crapshoot. What state and county the crime was in, for example, is a better predictor than the heinousness of the crime.”

Thinking about race in connection to Glossip’s plight also emphasizes the extent to which Black Lives Matter is not, contra its critics, an exclusionary movement. BLM activists like Shaun King have been very active on social media in highlighting the injustices in Glossip’s case.

“When you’re talking about the death penalty, it’s automatically an issue around black people,” anti-prison activist Mariame Kaba, director of Project NIA told me. “In the history of capital punishment it’s disproportionately been black people who have been subjected to it, targeted by it, and so it has to be an issue that we fight.”

She added, “Solidarity is very real for black people. We’re expected to be a part of every struggle. But it’s also been the case that we’ve been extraordinarily involved in making sure that everybody gets justice. I think that’s a historical reality when we look at black liberation struggles.”

The U.S. death penalty is arbitrary and racist. Is the system racist because it is arbitrary? Or is arbitrary justice the inevitable result of a racist system? The Glossip case can’t answer those questions. But it does show that the death penalty is unjust. And it suggests, one way or another, that as long as our system says that black lives don’t matter, other lives will be discarded as well.


Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture site the Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics 1941-1948.

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