Death penalty dilemma

The other day Jeffrey Dahmer was killed. I didn't shed a tear. I couldn't shed a tear.

Am I a bad person for not getting upset? Should I be upset when someone who has tortured and killed at least 16 other people dies? I don't know. But when I think of people like Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, etc., almost all of my moralizations about the social and philosophical dilemmas dealing with the death penalty are thrown out the window. Such individuals have nothing to contribute to society except for weighing on the minds of their victims' families. The death penalty would be the logical answer in dealing with such individuals. Note how I refer to them as individuals because I believe that somewhere along the line, these "people" lost their humanity.

The other day I got into an argument with the Wildcat editor in chief Sarah Garrecht over the death penalty issue after her column "Killing in the name of justice is wrong" (Nov. 16). She argued that the only thing the death penalty teaches is that "killing deserves killing." I don't agree with her rationale that the death penalty is always a cruel, unusual and vindicative punishment for anyone convicted of murder. But no matter how much I want to support the death penalty, I ultimately cannot. The simple fact is that the racial disparity in capital crime sentencing is far too great to ignore.

The statistics are indisputable. Of the more than 230 inmates executed since 1976 and the 2,800 inmates currently on state death rows, more than 40 percent are African American. There are several Southern states in which African Americans comprise the vast majority of people on death rows despite making up a minority of the population. On the federal level, 33 of the 37 defendants whom prosecutors have sought the death penalty for under the 1988 "Drug Kingpin Laws" have either been African American or Hispanic, even though three-quarters of those eligible for such prosecution have been white.

Even more staggering is the sentencing disparity depending on the race of the victims of those who have been executed. Of the 311 murder victims whose killers were executed since 1976, 84 percent have been white. However, nearly half of all U.S. murder victims during that same time period were African American. An African American who murders a white person is 63 times more likely to be executed than a white person who kills an African American, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Since 1976, only one white individual has been executed for killing an African American, and in that case both victim and perpetrator were already on South Carolina's death row. As Sen. Carol Mosley-Braun (D.-Ill.) stated,"The life of an African American victim seems to be valued less in our court system than the life of a non-minority victim."

In August, Congress passed the Crime Bill which created about 60 new capital crimes including carjackings that result in death or trafficking in large amounts of drugs. It was hailed as yet another "get-tough-on-crime" measure and a number of polls indicated that it was supported by the majority of Americans. Unfortunately, a provision in the original version of the Crime Bill called the Racial Justice Act was excised several weeks before the bill was passed.

The Racial Justice Act would have permitted minority death row inmates to have their sentences overturned if they could prove that their jurisdictions had a pattern of racial bias in using the death penalty. The provision would have allowed minorities to appeal their cases and have state or federal prosecutors explain any sentencing patterns in their jurisdictions that might suggest bias based on the victim's or defendant's race. If race did not play a role in the sentencing, then the sentence would be upheld. If there was a clear pattern of racial bias in the jurisdiction, then the sentence would be reconsidered. That's all. It would have provided one extra safeguard to ensure that the race of the defendant or victim did not play a role in the sentencing.

Conservative pundits were quick to pigeonhole the Racial Justice Act as a "racial death penalty quota." Initially the House of Representatives supported the measure by a 217 to 212 vote, but after continued publicity, many moderate Democrats backed away from the provision. Lawmakers seemed reluctant to support a measure that could be seen as increasing the rights of African American death row inmates. With an upcoming political election in mind, a significant number of lawmakers distanced themselves from the Act fearing it could hurt their chances for re-election (not that it did any good). Rather than vote for what was just, lawmakers went with what was politically expedient.

No matter how riled up I get by mass-murderers, I cannot ignore the hundreds of cases which are not hyped by the media. The 28 studies compiled by the U.S. General Accounting Office in 1990 clearly indicate that the role of the victim's race has a significant impact on death sentencing and the role of the defendant's race could also play a role. Until some safeguards are put in place to guarantee against the discrimination of minorities in capital crime cases, I cannot support the death penalty in any form. The trade-off for allowing the likes of Richard "The Night Stalker" Ramirez or Charles Manson to continue to live is one that I reluctantly accept.

Jon Burstein is a journalism and political science senior. Like it or not, his column appears every Tuesday.

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