Dec 4 - Race Looms Ever Larger as Death Sentences Decline

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Dec 4 - Race Looms Ever Larger as death Sentences Decline

AS HE WAS STRAPPED to the gurney in the Texas death chamber, Henry Martinez Porter prepared to deliver his last words. The execution had been scheduled for midnight. Porter, convicted of fatally shooting a Fort Worth police officer who pulled him over, swore that he’d acted in self-defense; he was shot in the side during the altercation. But two different juries sent him to die.

“The only thing that convicted me was that I am a Mexican and that he was a police officer,” Porter said. “People hollered for my life, and they are to have my life tonight.” Yet people never hollered for the life of a cop who k*lled a 13-year-old boy who was handcuffed in a police car, he said. People never hollered for the life of officers who beat a man named Jose Campo Torres and threw him in a river to drown. “This is America’s equal justice,” Porter said. “A Mexican’s life is worth nothing. When a policeman k*lls someone, he gets a suspended sentence or probation. When a Mexican k*lls a police officer, this is what you get.”

It was the summer of 1985, and Porter’s last words made headlines across the country. Texas officials denied that he had been a victim of discrimination. “We had Mexican-Americans on the jury,” the trial judge told the a*sociated Press. A police spokesperson said Porter’s car had fit the description of a vehicle used in an armed robbery. “He was an admitted dope addict,” he added. “His argument really doesn’t seem to hold much water.”

If there was truth to Porter’s protest about the death penalty as unequal justice, such questions were supposed to have been laid to rest.

In its historic 1972 ruling in Furman v. Georgia, the U.S. Supreme Court had struck down the death penalty as arbitrary and capricious, a lottery reserved for the poor and marginalized. States swiftly revised their statutes to pass constitutional muster. On July 2, 1976, the court upheld Texas’s new death penalty statute in Jurek v. Texas, writing approvingly that the legislation would ensure “the evenhanded, rational, and consistent imposition of death sentences under law.” Porter was sentenced to die a few weeks later.

Jurek was one of four rulings released alongside Gregg v. Georgia, the landmark decision that ushered in what is known as the “modern” death penalty era. Collectively, the rulings upheld a new set of laws designed to rehabilitate a system the Supreme Court had declared broken just years before. Gregg and its companion cases announced to Americans that capital punishment could be carried out equitably after all. Executions restarted the following year.

Yet it didn’t take long to see signs that the new death sentences were much like the old ones — only now they were handed down on an intensifying scale. By 1980, the country’s condemned population had far surpassed the nearly 600 people who’d been on death row when Furman came down. New research was starting to show that defendants were far more likely to receive the death penalty if the victim was white, particularly in the South, which accounted for the vast majority of new sentences. And while the percentages of black people sentenced to die dropped somewhat between Furman and Gregg, the number of people of color on death row began to rise. Between 1978 and 1982, “the number of Hispanics on death row has more than tripled,” AP reported.
Race has always been at the heart of the American death penalty. The disproportionate punishment of defendants of color — and black people in particular — is one of its defining historical characteristics. As the 40-year anniversary of Gregg approached in 2016, we were confronted with a number of cases that seemed to embody the death penalty’s racist roots. One was a black man sent to death row in 1979, an era that was already revealing the failed promise of the Supreme Court’s 1976 rulings. Another was a man executed despite the fact that one of his sentencing jurors had revealed himself as openly racist. The previous year, Texas had come perilously close to executing Rodney Reed for the r*pe and murder of a white woman, a case that reads like a relic of the Jim Crow South.

It was cases like these, which exposed old truths about the so-called modern death penalty, that inspired The Intercept to begin compiling a death-row dataset in the summer of 2016. The aim was not to recreate decades of rigorous statistical studies probing bias in capital punishment. Rather, we wanted to see what the numbers would show across a range of metrics, to produce a broad portrait of what four decades of “modern” capital punishment have wrought.

As our starting point, we chose every individual sentenced to death starting on July 2, 1976, the day Gregg was announced. We limited our inquiry to active death penalty states, to focus on capital punishment as it exists today. We were curious not only about who had been executed, but also about how many people had been removed from death row — a sizable but largely invisible population. We wanted to see how many people had been resentenced, commuted, or released; how many had died awaiting execution; and how long people had spent on death row. And we wanted to see who is on death row today.

It was also especially important to get a sense of the shifting racial demographics of death row in an era when capital punishment is on a precipitous decline. Our impression was that dwindling death sentences had a way of rendering old racial dynamics more stark. In 2016, for example, although new sentences dipped to a historic low, the vast majority of those sent to death row were people of color — and more than 50 percent were black. In Colorado, which had repeatedly struggled to pass abolition legislation, only three men were on death row — and all three were black. More recently, as we began to study the results of our data collection, we found indications that racial disparities are increasing as the use of the death penalty is decreasing.

Our dataset shows that in the first full decade after Gregg, 46 percent of those sentenced to die in current death penalty states were people of color. In the decade from January 2009 through December 2018, that percentage grew to 60 percent. A similar trend can be seen across several leading death penalty states.

If such raw figures do not tell the whole story, recent history could have foretold such an outcome in 1976. The Jurek decision was a glaring red flag, upholding a death penalty statute that cut to the heart of what capital punishment had always been about. The Texas statute was drafted on the dubious premise that jurors could predict a defendant’s future dangerousness — a subjective finding inextricable from racial attitudes. Today, Gregg is synonymous with the start of the modern death penalty era, but Jurek has sent more than 1,000 people to death row, coming to haunt even those who decided it. When he was asked in 2010 if there were any rulings he would go back and change, retired Justice John Paul Stevens named Jurek as the vote he regretted the most.

With its execution tally set to reach 600 in the coming years, Texas is widely seen as an outlier, rather than an emblem of capital punishment as it stands in 2019. Yet it shares important characteristics in common with other death penalty states. Texas, too, is handing down fewer death sentences year after year. And these sentences are exposing a stark reality about who still gets sentenced to die. In Texas, during the first decade after Gregg, people of color made up 51 percent of those sentenced to death. This percentage has grown to 75 percent in the past 10 years. Of just seven people Texas sent to death row in 2018, all of them were men of color.

If such trends are any indication, it seems clear that the modern death penalty era remains animated by the same racial dynamics that have always defined capital punishment — the same dynamics decried by Porter as he lay on the gurney in 1985.

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 https://theintercept.com/ .. ty-race-texas/


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