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Does your race and income matter if you face the death penalty?

It is no secret that our country’s criminal justice system has consistently proven to be biased against minority communities of color. Statistics published by the NAACP show that even amongst those found guilty of crimes, African-Americans continue to be disproportionately sentenced to life in prison, face higher drug sentences, and are executed at higher rates when compared to people of other races. Michelle Alexander speaks of a “color-coded caste system” in The New Jim Crow that marginalized communities who encounter the criminal justice system.

Seasoned Texas attorney David R. Dow’s new book The Autobiography of an Execution provides an exploration of the death penalty, written through the eyes of a man who has spent 20 years defending over a hundred death-row inmates, most of whom died, and most of whom were guilty. As the head litigator for the Texas Defender Service, a non profit legal aid organization in the state that boasts the highest number of executions since 1976, Dow presents a powerful argument against the death penalty system. Candidly exploring how he balances such a trying job with being a good father and husband, Dow’s extremely personal book only works to strengthen the argument that the broken criminal justice system operates on a vicious cycle based on racial and economic disparity.

In his book, Dow opposes the unequal basis on which some criminals are sentenced to be executed while others aren’t, and deems the criminal justice system “racist, classist (and) unprincipled.” He opposes the death penalty as a flawed and unjust facet of the criminal justice system. Based on his experience, he notes that while he believes that a majority of the clients he represented were, in fact, guilty, there was very little separating those criminals from others who were guilty of the same crime, other than “the operation of what I consider to be insidious types of prejudice.” Most unsettling is his severe mistrust of members of the justice system – police officers, prosecutors and judges – whom he believes would “violate their oaths of office” and put men and women on death row who they think “deserve to be there”.

In Dow’s exploration of the politics behind the death penalty, perhaps the most tenacious argument against it is the blatant way that the intersections of race and class influence the outcome of a criminal case. Dow says,

…if you’re going to commit murder, you want to be white, and you want to be wealthy — so that you can hire a first-class lawyer — and you want to kill a black person. And if [you are], the odds of your being sentenced to death are basically zero…It’s one thing to say that rich people should be able to drive Ferraris and poor people should have to take the bus. It’s very different to say that rich people should get treated one way by the state’s criminal-justice system and poor people should get treated another way. But that is the system that we have.

Photo courtesy of chicagotribune.com

POLL: Does race and income matter if you face the death penalty?

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One Response to “Does your race and income matter if you face the death penalty?”

    Cool says:

    Thanks for the interesting post