Racial Disparities in Regard to the Death Penalty

In another class here at Denison, American Violence, our studies are focused on the death penalty. One of our main points of study for the first half of the semester is of the novel A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest A. Gaines. In the novel, Jefferson, a black man is sentenced to death for a crime that he did not commit. He was guilty only by association with men who robbed a convenience store, which ended in a gun fight wherein both the store owners and the perpetrators died. As a poor, uneducated black man, he was found guilty easily. The jury was filled with white men, who saw Jefferson as inferior to themselves, as unimportant as a hog (a symbol of ignorance in the novel). As such they had no qualms to find him guilty even when the result would lead to his death. Despite the defense attorney’s tactic to make the jury feel as though Jefferson wasn’t even worth enough to be convicted, the jury disagreed and found Jefferson guilty of robbery and murder. As Grant relays to the reader in the book, the Jury did not take long to come to a conclusion; “The judge commended the twelve white men for reaching a quick and just verdict” (Gaines 8.)

According to Derrick Bell, the death penalty has huge racial disparities. Minorities hold forty-two percent of death row inmates; and thirty-four percent are black. Those who are poor and belong to a racial minority are much more likely to be convicted of a crime than white Americans. Most of the death penalty convictions were done for those who affected a white victim, as opposed to someone of a minority. According to Bell, a person is more likely to be convicted of a crime if the victim is white, as opposed to any other race. This places a huge disparity on society’s value and favoritism of specific races. With concern to Jefferson’s case, there was very little evidence against him. The white community saw him as a flaw for being uneducated, poor, and black. Though Gaines story takes place in rural south 1940, the issue is still relevant now. Since more blacks are in prison than whites, it is clear that the problems that face Jefferson and Grant in Gaines’ fictional story are relevant for today’s society.

For example, in the same class we have personally talked to a death row inmate named Keith Lamar. Lamar was convicted and sentenced to prison at the age of nineteen for a murder that he openly admits to. Whilst in prison, he was accused of leading a riot, which lead to multiple deaths of both guards and inmates. Lamar claims to have had no hand in this crime. More information on Lamar’s case can be found here. Despite his circumstances Lamar insists on educating himself from inside prison walls. He took his education into his own hands, citing books for his survival in prison, especially authors like Gaines. Reading and connecting with fictional characters gave him a better sense of his own morality. Not only does Lamar educate himself, but he has made it his life’s goal to educate others. His main objective is to dispel the myth, as he describes it, that the people incarcerated, and specifically death row inmates, are not human.

I found the talk my class had with Keith Lamar and the novel which covered Jefferson’s executions very relevant to our class. In both situations, the men found were products of their environment and their fates were partly inevitable. Lamar contemplates the issue of guilt and responsibility. He claims to be guilty of murder and of selling drugs, but does not hold responsibility for creating the society that left him with no other choice. This is a testament to the covert nature of race and its nature in society and institutions.

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4 thoughts on “Racial Disparities in Regard to the Death Penalty

  1. I completely agree here, Jacquie. Based of Mr. and Mrs. Petros’s article “Dispelling Eight Myths” alone, the number of falsely accused that are incarcerated is incredible. In this article they indicate that there could be nearly five thousand inmates in jail that are innocent. Simply because of skin color, or background, a person can be sentenced for life. What really struck me occurred during Mr. and Mrs. Petros’s talk when they told the story of a man who was sentenced to jail for a crime he did not commit, simply based off of one eye witness who described the man who murdered her family member as looking “like her uncle”. It is astounding to me what the law force gets away with simply to “win a case”.
    My question for you then Jacquie, and it is a loaded one, is how do you think we can go about fixing this? Where should we start when it comes to the wrongdoings of incarceration?

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    1. I also believe this problem is a huge issue for society today. The Petros offered remedies that involved, legislative and procedural reforms, higher prosecutorial standards (to seek the truth instead of seeking convictions), and accountability and correction in law enforcement. The Innocence Project is also another great source to help towards correcting wrongful convictions. Though, as citizens, it is harder to positively enforce these remedies without bureaucratic influence. Our best option may be to participate or join the Innocence Project and fight for “actual innocence” or to vote for representatives in government who will get involved in wrongful convictions Do you believe there is a way for students at universities like Denison to positively influence this movement?

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      1. Loaded question traded for a loaded question! I think everything you’re saying is very valid and aligned with what the Petros’s were arguing in class. It is on us, as American citizens, to hold our system accountable. If you think about it, those who hold office positions want re-election and therefore will fight for what the majority of people want because without the peoples satisfaction, they won’t be re-elected. So, if we have strong perspective and demand for equality, our governmental system will be obliged to follow our desires.
        I think that Denison students of course have a way to positively influence our society. As a nation we are approaching a turning point. Gay rights, black rights, rights of all those oppressed, are no longer ignored. They are at the forefront of our conversations, our disagreements and our beliefs. Interracial couples and gay rights are now beginning to be considered (by some) normative. Schools like Denison continuously stress the importance of treating one another as valued individuals. Our culture asks us to find the differences in one another beautiful. Soon, college students like those at Denison will be our nations dominant speaking and working group. Therefore, our politicians will have to speak to people like us and will ultimately be obliged to act in a way that satisfies our beliefs. I think that if schools like Denison continue to highlight the beauty of every individual and emphasize the dignity every human being deserves, our values will begin to shift and new norms will emerge. Obviously, this is just a start. Do you think anything else can be done on Denison’s campus?

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  2. The simplest thing I think we can do on Denison’s campus is keep ourselves informed of injustices like the ones that the Pertos talked about and refuse to give into the stereotypes that lead to wrongful convictions. The bigger problem is the segregation in society that has left certain people in impossible situations that forces them to lead to crime. From my talk with Keith Lamar, he seemed to think that joining a gang was normal in the environment he lived in. In fact, it was expected in order to be able to take care of his family. Just attending Denison University shows that neither of us are victims of this sort of environment. We are privileged with families and educations, but there are many people in the US that do not take these things for granted. We need to realize that sometimes crime is the only option. Lamar, though guilty of his first crime, was unable to change the situations that lead to his involvement in criminal activity. Are these environments something that we can hope to change in the future? And if so, what do you think is the first step?

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