“Twenty years have passed since this Court declared that the death penalty must be imposed fairly, and with reasonable consistency, or not all … and, despite the efforts of the States and courts to devise legal formulas and procedural rules to meet this daunting challenge, the death penalty remains fraught with arbitrariness, discrimination, caprice, and mistake.”
– Harry Blackmun, former Supreme Court Justice, Callins v. Collins (1994)
Since Connecticut rewrote its death penalty statute in 1973, there have been over 4,800 murders,1 15 individuals sentenced to death, and one execution in the state. The small percentage of homicides resulting in death sentences – less than half of 1% – raises serious doubts about the fairness and equity of Connecticut’s death penalty. It is difficult to differentiate between the few murders resulting in death sentences from hundreds of others in the state. In Connecticut as elsewhere in the nation, race, geography, and socioeconomic status play a significant role in determining who receives the death penalty.
Racial, Geographic, and Socioeconomic Bias
- Nationally, 50% of murder victims are white. In cases resulting in an execution, however, the murder victim is white 76% of the time.2 Studies in Connecticut,3 North Carolina,4 Maryland,5 and New Jersey6 found that one’s odds of receiving the death penalty increase significantly when the victim is white.
- On Connecticut’s death row, seven of the 10 inmates are minorities, as of March 2011.
- A disproportionate percentage of those wrongfully sentenced to death are minorities. Of the 138 death row inmates exonerated since 1973, 85 – that is, 61% – are minorities.7 Also, three of the four individuals exonerated of murder convictions in the past two years in Connecticut are minorities.
- Across the nation, at least one out of five African Americans executed since 1977 was tried in front of an all white jury.8
- Since 1973, eight of the eighteen death sentences in Connecticut were prosecuted in a single judicial district, Waterbury.
- A 2000 Justice Department report of the federal death penalty found that 80% of the cases submitted by federal prosecutors for death penalty review in the past five years have involved racial minorities as defendants. The report also found that 40% of the 682 cases sent to the Justice Department for approval to seek the death penalty were filed by only five jurisdictions. Attorney General Janet Reno said she was “sorely troubled” by the report’s results.9
- Nationwide, there are stark disparities in how states apply the death penalty. In 2010, Southern states carried out 76% of the nation’s executions.10 These percentages are not an anomaly for 2010, but rather reflect the reality that active use of the death penalty tends to be relegated to Southern states.
- 95% of death row inmates could not afford their own attorney.11
- Given the role race, geography, and socioeconomic status play in determining death sentences, unsurprisingly there is a high error rate in capital cases. A 2002 ColumbiaUniversitystudy found that 68% of death penalty cases were overturned at trial. Among those capital cases subject to a retrial, 82% resulted in a sentence less than death.12
Fairness in the Death Penalty is a Moving Target
Across the country, both the federal government and state governments have examined the unfair application of the death penalty and attempted to make reforms. Each reform makes a complicated system yet more complicated and expensive, while creating a new wave of problems in application. With a system that decides who lives and who dies, best faith efforts are not good enough. There is too much at stake.
- Total murders compiled from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reports.
- Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC).
- John Donohue, Capital Punishment in Connecticut, 1973-2007: A Comprehensive Evaluation From 4600 Murders to One Execution, 2008.
- Prof. Jack Boger and Dr. Isaac Unah, Race and the Death Penalty in North Carolina – An Empirical Analysis: 1993-1997, April 16, 2001.
- Paternoster, Raymond et al, An Empirical Analysis of Maryland’s Death Sentencing System with Respect to the Influence of Race and Legal Jurisdiction, University of Maryland, January 2003.
- DPIC, “Fact Sheet,” March 25, 2011.
- Amnesty International, United States: Death by Discrimination – the continuing role of race in capital cases, April 2003.
- US Justice Department, The Federal Death Penalty: A Statistical Survey (1988-2000), September 12, 2000.
- DPIC, “The Death Penalty in 2010: Year End Report,” December 21, 2010.
- Amnesty International USA, “Death Penalty and Arbitrariness.”
- James Liebman, et al., A Broken System, Part II: Why There is So Much Error in Capital Cases, And What Can be Done About It, Columbia University, 2002.