Race and the Death Penalty
The ACLU opposes capital punishment as a clear violation of the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishments. One reason the death penalty presents such a clear Eighth Amendment violation is that it is routinely imposed based on wholly improper factors, such as race, class, venue, the quality of counsel, whether the defendant is a resident of or a visitor to the jurisdiction in which the case is tried. Unequal justice is no justice at all.
It is unconstitutional for racial bias to play a part in the selection of an individual for capital prosecution, in the prosecution itself, and/or in the imposition of sentence of death. Nevertheless, racial discrimination permeates the capital punishment system.
Make a Difference
Your support helps the ACLU oppose capital punishment and defend a broad range of civil liberties.
End the Death Penalty in Your State (map): The state of Georgia has executed Troy Davis, despite serious concerns that he was wrongly convicted in 1989 of killing a police officer. This case makes clear that the death penalty system in the United States is broken beyond repair. It is arbitrary, discriminatory and comes at an enormous cost to taxpayers, and it must be ended.
Race and the Death Penalty Blog Series: April 2012 marks the 25th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in McCleskey v. Kemp, in which the Court ruled that a defendant cannot rely upon statistical evidence of systemic racial bias to prove his death sentence unconstitutional, no matter how strong that evidence may be. McCleskey has been roundly condemned as a low point in the quest for equality that begs to be revisited. To mark the occasion, we ran this blog series about McCleskey and its legacy.
North Carolina Racial Justice Act: The North Carolina Racial Justice Act (RJA), which passed in August 2009, requires that courts enter a life sentence for any death row defendant who proves that race was a factor in the imposition of his or her death sentence. The law allows capital defendants, for the first time, to use statistical evidence to show bias in the death penalty.
Reggie Clemons: Reggie Clemons and three others were dubiously convicted of the murders of two young women who fell from a bridge. The prosecutor conceded that Clemons neither pushed the women nor planned their deaths, but theorized that he was an accomplice. Clemons and two other black men were sentenced to death while a fourth, a young white man, was offered a plea deal to testify against the other three and is now out on parole. One of the defendants has already been executed.
The Case Against the Death Penalty: The American Civil Liberties Union believes the death penalty inherently violates the constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment and the guarantees of due process of law and of equal protection under the law. Furthermore, we hold that the state should not arrogate unto itself the right to kill human beings – especially when it kills with premeditation and ceremony, in the name of the law or in the name of its people, or when it does so in an arbitrary and discriminatory fashion.
North Carolina v. Robinson: The ACLU and co-counsel successfully challenged Robinson’s sentence under the North Carolina Racial Justice Act (RJA), which allowed capital defendants to present evidence, including statistical evidence, to show that racial bias was a factor in the imposition of the death penalty. The ACLU charges that North Carolina’s capital punishment system is plagued by racial discrimination.
Petitions Filed Under North Carolina’s Historic Racial Justice Act: On August 3, 2010, five North Carolina death row inmates filed claims under the Racial Justice Act. Their cases are based on specific incidents of racial bias as well as statistical evidence from three new comprehensive studies of the death penalty in North Carolina.
Luong v. State of Alabama: The ACLU filed an appeal in the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals challenging the conviction and death sentence of Lam Luong. In this extraordinarily high profile capital case which captivated the Mobile, Alabama, area, the trial judge refused to change the venue to a location outside Mobile, despite a flood of prejudicial, pretrial publicity.
Spradley v. Alabama: The state’s evidence against Mr. Spradley, a young African-American man convicted of killing a 58-year-old white grandmother, was alarmingly thin and riddled with inconsistencies.