Featured Illustration: The Appeal
In Sumter County, Florida, in 1902, a Black man by the name of Henry Wilson was condemned to death and subsequently hanged before a violent, white mob. He was accused of murder, and his trial spanned over the short period of just two hours and forty minutes. This trial was accompanied by an armed horde of white Americans who demanded that Wilson be killed, each insisting upon a public hanging despite the fact that public executions had already been illegalized in Florida. In the end, Henry Wilson was, in fact, murdered before this mob. His execution was actually a form of appeasement, as even after receiving state pushback for their actions in court, the mob had shamelessly met Florida officials with this threat: “We’ll hang him before sundown, governor or no governor” (Stevenson, 18).
Now, if the image of the wanton murder of Henry Wilson is reminiscent of the United States’ long history of lynching, it is because the death penalty was largely established in order to replace this act. During the 1920s, southern states were receiving incredibly bad press due to the sheer number of people they lynched (Stevenson, 17). This meant that they could no longer turn to vigilante violence to murder Black Americans, so instead, they simply turned to the courts. In fact, the foundation upon which the death penalty was established was so apparent that in the 1972 court case, Furman v. Georgia, the Supreme Court had to completely strike down Georgia’s death penalty statute: “When people begin to believe that organized society is unwilling or unable to impose upon criminal offenders the punishment they ‘deserve,’ then there are sown the seeds of anarchy — of self-help, vigilante justice, and lynch law” (Furman).
Unfortunately, by the late 1930s, court-ordered executions had actually outpaced lynchings in the south for the first time in American history (Stevenson, 18). This means that many other African Americans like Henry Wilson were also recklessly convicted and sentenced to death during this time. For example, in 1931, in Alabama, a group of nine Black boys, aged twelve to nineteen, were convicted of raping two white women. In this case, a group of angry white Americans also pushed for the killing of these boys, and a local sheriff had to call in the state’s national guard in order to prevent a lynching (Salter). Now, despite the fact that one of their accusers admitted that she had lied about the event, as well as the mountain of evidence that remained on their side, eight out of nine of these boys were sentenced to death via electric chair (Cose). Today, they are known as the “Scottsboro Boys,” and although six of these men were pardoned or had their convictions overturned, all nine still spent large portions of their lives in prison. It was only in 2013 — a grand 80 years later — that the remaining three boys were pardoned by the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles (Lyman). This was, of course, after all nine of the men had already passed away.
Today, the death penalty continues to have detrimental effects on Black Americans, therefore reflecting its ties to its origin.
Almost half of the death row population in the United States is Black, despite the fact that Black people only constitute around 13 percent of the US population. It is important to note, however, that Black people also make up over half of all known death row exonerations and are seven times more likely than innocent white people to be wrongly convicted of murder (Selby).
Racial bias also plays a significant role in the overrepresentation of Black Americans on death row. One University of Washington study conducted over the course of 31 years found that in Washington State, “Black defendants are three times more likely than similarly situated white defendants to be sentenced to death, after controlling for all other variables in the model.” The two women who authored this study found the race of the defendant to be “a significant predictor of sentencing outcomes” (Beckett).
Moreover, the tendency of the death penalty to disfavor Black Americans is also apparent when comparing the outcome of murder cases when the victim is white versus when the victim is Black. According to a study published in the Harvard Civil Rights law review, “defendants convicted of killing white victims in Georgia are 17 times more likely to be executed than those convicted of murdering Black victims” (Phillips). Nationally, this trend continues, and it only confirms the unfortunate truth that the United States simply does not value Black life (Long).
The United States’ death penalty was doomed from its construction. It was largely created to replace the heinous act of lynching, and even today, according to the Innocence Project, “the states that sentence the most people to death are those that once carried out the most lynchings” (Selby). It is important to acknowledge the fact that the modern death penalty in the United States was established largely as a way to kill Black people without using vigilante violence. And because our death penalty today is reminiscent of our horrific past, it is imperative that we not only tediously examine our past wrongdoings, but that we also demand the immediate reconstruction of our criminal justice system.
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Beckett, Katherine, and Heather Evans. “THE ROLE OF RACE IN WASHINGTON STATE CAPITAL SENTENCING.” Death Penalty Info, University of Washington, 27 Jan. 2014, files.deathpenaltyinfo.org/legacy/documents/WashRaceStudy2014OldVersion.pdf. Accessed 19 Sept. 2021.
Cose, Ellis. “The Saga of the Scottsboro Boys.” American Civil Liberties Union, American Civil Liberties Union, 27 July 2020, http://www.aclu.org/issues/racial-justice/saga-scottsboro-boys. Accessed 19 Sept. 2021.
Furman v Georgia, 408 U.S. 238, 310 (1972).
Long, Colleen. “Report: Death Penalty Cases Show History of Racial Disparity.” AP NEWS, Associated Press, 15 Sept. 2020, apnews.com/article/united-states-lifestyle-race-and-ethnicity-discrimination-racial-injustice-ded1f517a0fd64bf1d55c448a06acccc. Accessed 19 Sept. 2021.
Lyman, Brian. “Alabama Grants Posthumous Pardons to Scottsboro Boys.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 21 Nov. 2013, http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/11/21/scottsboro-boys-pardoned/3662205/. Accessed 19 Sept. 2021.
Phillips, Scott, and Justin F. Marceau. “Whom the State Kills.” SSRN, Harvard Civil Rights – Civil Liberties Law Review, 22 Aug. 2019, papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3440828. Accessed 19 Sept. 2021.
Salter, Daren. “Scottsboro Trials.” Encyclopedia of Alabama, 6 Feb. 2008, encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-1456. Accessed 19 Sept. 2021.
Selby, Daniele. “8 Facts You Should Know about Racial Injustice in the Criminal Legal System.” Innocence Project, The Innocence Project, 24 Feb. 2021, innocenceproject.org/facts-racial-discrimination-justice-system-wrongful-conviction-black-history-month/. Accessed 19 Sept. 2021.
Stevenson, Bryan. “A Presumption of Guilt.” Policing the Black Man: Arrest, Prosecution, and Imprisonment, edited by Angela J. Davis, Vintage Books, a Division of Penguin Random House LLC, 2018, pp. 3–30. Accessed 19 Sept. 2021.