Discussion prompt(s):
1)  What is your reaction to the data presented here (and elsewhere in the module) about the distribution of executions in the U.S. by race of defendant and race of victim? What, if anything, stands out to you from these data?
2)  Have the courts and/or legislative bodies done enough to prevent racial bias from having an impact in death penalty cases? Why or why not?
No more than 200 wordsRACE, ETHNICITY, AND THE DEATH

Public Opinion

Empirical Evidence


• Current statistics

• Who’s on death row?

• Constitutionality of capital punishment

• Supreme Court case law

• Public attitudes towards capital punishment

• Racialized support

• Empirical evidence of racial bias?

• Race of defendant

• Race of victim

• Contemporary issues

Virginia abolished the death

penalty in 2021.

Current state status:

• Death penalty = 24

• No death penalty = 23

• Governor imposed

moratorium = 3

Death Penalty Information Center, 2021


• 1890-1984

• 5,726 executions – 54% (2,915) non-White

• Between 1976 and 2021 (post-Furman)

• 1,538 people executed

• 55.6% White, 34.3% Black, 8.4% Hispanic

• Five states have accounted for nearly two-thirds of all executions since 1977

• Texas, Virginia, Oklahoma, Florida, and Missouri

• 2,508 inmates under a death sentence as of April 1, 2021

• 98% male

• 42.37% White, 41.29% Black, 13.5% Latinx

• 51 females under a sentence of death in 2021

• 58.8% White, 23.5% Black; 11.7% Latina

BJS, 2021; Death Penalty Information Center, 2021


• The Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits “cruel and unusual punishments”

• Interpretations of cruel and unusual left up to the Supreme Court

• The Fourteenth Amendment provides equal protection of the law

• Legal challenges cite racial disparities in capital cases

• Furman v. Georgia (1972)

• Ruled the death penalty unconstitutional under existing administration practices

• Violation of Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments

• 5 to 4 decision; all 9 judges wrote separate opinions

• The death penalty was being applied in an arbitrary and capricious manner

• Little uniformity across states

• Lack of appropriate guidance for jurors informing when the sentence was appropriate

• The degree of discretion available opened the door for discrimination

• 3 of 5 judges in the majority cited racial discrimination in the application of the penalty

Walker et al., 2018


• Capital punishment was essentially illegal between 1972 and 1976

• Furman invalidated death penalty statutes in 39 states, DC, and the federal government

• Vacated 765 cases involving death row inmates

• Gregg v. Georgia (1976)

• Guided discretion statutes addressed the arbitrary and capricious concerns

• Requiring jurors to consider specific aggravating and mitigating circumstances sufficiently narrowed

the pool of death eligible cases

• Narrowed death-eligible offenses with mandatory death penalty ruled unconstitutional

• Coker v. Georgia (1977)

• Capital punishment for rape is unconstitutional

• Although not cited by the majority, between 1930 and the 1970s, 405 Black men were

executed in the South for rape, compared to 48 Whites

Walker et al., 2018


• Public opinion matters

• CJ actors weigh public o

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