Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Race and the Death Penalty

A variety of scholars take a look at race and the death penalty in From Lynch Mobs to the Killing State: Race and the Death Penalty in America, edited by Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., and Austin Sarat (KF9227 .C2 F76 2006 at Classified Stacks). You can get a sense of the range of perspectives from three chapters:

A chapter by Stuart Banner ("Traces of Slavery: Race and the Death Penalty in Historical Perspective") chronicles how capital crimes were defined by race up through the Civil War. For instance, in Virginia slaves could be executed for any offense for which whites could be sentenced to three years or more, while free blacks (but not whites) could get the death penalty for rape, attempted rape, kidnapping a woman, and aggravated assault (if the victim was white). (p. 99) After the Civil War, the explicit distinctions were gone, but having all-white juries meant that penalties were imposed unequally.

A chapter by two social scientists (Michael L. Radelet and Glenn L. Pierce, "The Role of Victim's Race and Geography on Death Sentencing: Some Recent Data from llinois") explains the study they did that contibuted to Gov. Ryan's decision to commute the death sentences of 167 prisoners in Illinois. People were much more likely to receive a death sentence if the victim was white -- or if the crime was in a rural county.

Another sociologist offers a more theoretical look: Benjamin Fleury-Steiner, "Death in 'Whiteface': Modern Race Minstrels, Official Lynching, and the Culture of American Apartheid."

UW note: if you come to the PILA auction on February 2, you'll be able to bid on a copy of this book signed by Charles Ogletree when he was here last month. Also up for auction will be Ogletree's memoir and analysis of civil rights, All Deliberate Speed: Reflections on the First Half Century of Brown v. Board of Education.

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