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Opponents of Capital Punishment Prefer Litigation to Legislation

By George Will Copyright Washington Post Writers Group | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), May 2, 1994 | Go to article overview

Opponents of Capital Punishment Prefer Litigation to Legislation


George Will Copyright Washington Post Writers Group, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


Come November, voters should remember that in the spring 219 House members and 41 senators voted, in effect, to abolish capital punishment. Many of the legislators who voted for the Racial Justice Act portion of the crime bill know that abolition will be its probable consequence if it becomes law.

The act says no person shall be executed under a sentence imposed "on the basis of race." The act says that a compelling inference of a racial basis is established, if in a particular jurisdiction, race was a "statistically significant factor" in decisions to seek or impose capital punishment.

According to the act, relevant evidence of race as a basis of a death sentence may include statistics showing death sentences are imposed "significantly more frequently" upon "persons of one race than upon persons of another" or more frequently "as punishment for capital offenses against persons of one race than as punishment for capital offenses against persons of another race."

About half of America's murder victims are white, about half are black. But about 85 percent of the victims whose killers have been executed were white. So juries place a higher value on the deaths of whites, right? Not so fast.

Capital punishment is especially apt to be imposed on killers of police officers. Eighty-five percent of murdered police officers are white. Are juries placing high value on the lives of white people or police officers?

Juries' sympathies may vary with the moral character of the victim. A higher percentage of black murder victims than of white victims are killed while involved in illegal drug activities.

Prosecutors are more apt to seek capital punishment when a murder is committed during the commission of another crime, such as robbery or rape. According to one survey, 20 percent of white murder victims and 12 percent of black victims are killed by persons committing another crime.

Since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976, 232 persons (as of several weeks ago) have been executed. Of those, 91 - 39 percent - were black, more than three times the black percentage of the population. Since 1976, the annual percentages of blacks among those convicted of homicide have ranged from 44 to 52.

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