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U.S.: Death by Discrimination -- Time to Halt Executions, Says Amnesty International

WASHINGTON, April 24 /U.S. Newswire/ -- The death penalty in the United States remains an act of racial injustice as well as an inherently cruel and degrading punishment, Amnesty International said today as it issued a new report on the continuing role of race in capital cases in the U.S.

"President Bush has promised that the US will always stand firm for equal justice," said William F. Schulz, Executive Director of Amnesty International USA (AIUSA). "If that's true, he must call for an immediate halt to federal executions and encourage states to follow suit in the face of studies consistently indicating that the justice system places a higher value on white life than on black life."

Eighty percent of people executed since judicial killing resumed in 1977 were put to death for murders involving white victims, although blacks and whites are murder victims in almost equal numbers in the U.S., according to the report. Since 1977, 200 African Americans have been executed for the death of white victims, which is 15 times as many the number of whites put to death for killing blacks during that period.

In addition, African Americans account for only 12 percent of the U.S. population, but represent more than 40 percent of those on death row and one in three of those executed. The US will soon execute its 300th African American inmate since 1977.

"At least one in five of the African Americans executed since 1977, and a quarter of the blacks put to death for killing whites, were tried in front of all-white juries," Schulz continued. "What are the odds that this happened for entirely non-discriminatory reasons?"

The cases highlighted in the report show a pattern of prosecutors dismissing minority jurors during jury selection. Prospective jurors may only be excluded for "race neutral" reasons in U.S. capital trials, but this protection only catches the most overtly racist prosecutorial tactics. Even in the absence of questionable dismissals, however, defendants have faced jury pools in which minorities are under-represented in the first place.

"U.S. capital juries do not represent the community because death penalty opponents are kept off them," said Sue Gunawardena-Vaughn, AIUSA's Program to Abolish the Death Penalty Director. "This is compounded where, for whatever reason, members of minority communities are under-represented in the pools from which jurors are selected."

Recent research by the Capital Jury Project into the attitudes of capital jurors indicates that racial stereotyping can taint juror deliberations and that the racial mix of juries can play a role in the outcome of capital trials.. Two black prisoners were executed last month despite allegations that the solitary African American on each of their juries was singled out for pressure by white jurors to change their vote from life to death.

"The U.S. ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) more than eight years ago, thereby committing itself to work against racism and its effects, including in the justice system," Gunawardena-Vaughn noted. "As far as capital justice goes, there has been a manifest failure of human rights leadership. For example, the Bush Administration allowed federal executions to resume in 2001 and to continue this year despite having failed to explain racial disparities in federal capital sentencing."

A 1987 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, McCleskey v Kemp, remains a huge obstacle for legal challenges to death sentences on the grounds of racial bias in capital sentencing. The ruling places the burden of proof of racial discrimination during sentencing on the defense and calls for "exceptionally clear proof" of discriminatory intent. In 2001, for example, a federal court referred to the racial disparities on Ohio's death row as "extremely troubling," but felt unable to offer any remedy because of the McCleskey precedent.

One of the hallmarks of the U.S. capital justice system is the number of errors, at both the conviction and sentencing stages of death penalty trials, discovered on appeal. A landmark study released last year by Columbia University concluded that race is one of the factors that feeds the high error rate in capital cases.

"We don't believe the courts catch all inequities, including those caused by conscious or unconscious racism among the decision-makers in capital cases," the report notes. "What is more, the tough-on-crime politics of the death penalty means that executive clemency is not the fail-safe it is supposed to be. The only appropriate response to human fallibility is abolition of this irrevocable punishment."

"The U.S.' continuing resort to judicial killing gives the lie to its self-proclaimed status as global human rights champion," Amnesty International continued. "The fact that the condemned are selected for death under a system tainted by discrimination and error compounds the country's shame and lends weight to accusations of hypocrisy leveled at its leadership."


For an embargoed copy of Amnesty International's report, USA: Death by discrimination -- the continuing role of race in capital cases, contact jcorlew(At)

Contact: Jen Corlew of Amnesty International USA, 202-544-0200, ext. 247; 202-270-2860 (mobile)
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