SHARE - November 8 2007 J662 5th Paper Giving New Meaning...

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November 8, 2007 J662: 5 th Paper Giving New Meaning to the Term: A Black and White Issue There comes a time in every ethnic studies class when a big issue is thrown at you. Sometimes it’s abortion, or stem-cell research, or gay marriage; this time it’s the death penalty. It’s pretty understandable, of all the really hot button issues, the death penalty seems to be the most racially charged. Nevertheless, it does make for a compelling question; how does race affect our justice system in the process of adjudicating its most severe punishment? First we need to talk about the death penalty. Long ago in the days of the Old Testament, capital punishment was pretty much the only punishment. When imprisoning was considered the inhumane treatment, and financial matters were dealt with elsewhere, death was pretty much the punishment. The death penalty is a worldwide phenomenon that did not evolve out of a single culture, so while not all nations still use the death penalty, the nations that do represent a diverse cross section of race, religion, financial status and ideology. In short, capital punishment is big. And for the most part, America is ok with it. In fact, of the top 11 largest states (by population, the sum of whose electoral votes would be enough to dictate the presidency) 1 only New York has outlawed capital punishment. The rest of the top 5, (California, Texas, Florida an Illinois) lead the nation in executions 2 . That said, we’re just not killing people like we used to. Up until 1951, we averaged over a hundred executions a year in this country. While the numbers began to dwindle right up until the Supreme 1 All population statistics courtesy of the 2000 US census, 2 All death penalty statistics courtesy of U.S. Dept. of Justice- Bureau of Justice Statistics,
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Court banned capital punishment in 1968, the numbers never recovered after the ban’s 1976 repeal. In 2006, 53 people were executed in the US. Capital punishment does not even rank among the top causes of death in this country. In fact, even homicide (the crime for which the vast majority of death sentences are handed out) ranks 15 th on the list, considerably below both suicide and accidental death 3 . All this is to say that I don’t think we’re executing that many innocent people, partially by virtue of the fact that we’re really not executing that many people period. But to answer the question literally, I am fairly certain that innocent people get sent to death row. Even ignoring the grand gestures of people like Governor Ryan of Illinois emptying
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SHARE - November 8 2007 J662 5th Paper Giving New Meaning...

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