The U.S. criminal justice system is a reflection of the values and mores of the society it serves. Which is to say, racism is built into its bones. A new study, released today as part of an appeal filed in the case of death row inmate Duane Buck, offers but the latest evidence of that reality. In Harris County, Texas, juries and district attorneys mete out punishment that differs greatly depending on the race of the defendant. The study buttresses Buck’s argument that the death sentence he received in 1997 unconstitutional, and that his own case represents not just a one-time lapse of justice, but a systemic problem.
University of Maryland criminologist Ray Paternoster found in an analysis (PDF) of 504 Harris County cases similar to Buck’s between 1992 and 1999, Harris County prosecutors were more than three times as likely to seek the death penalty when the defendant was black than in cases when the defendant was white. Juries, too, treated white and black defendants differently. In cases similar to Buck’s, juries demanded the death penalty 20 percent of the time for white defendants, but 40 percent of the time when defendants were black. Buck is black.
“We are all at risk when our justice system allows prosecutors and juries to exercise lethal discretion based on race,” Sherrilyn Ifill, Director-Counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said in a statement.