More than half of the people on death row in this country are people of color. Of the 2817 people currently under a death sentence, 41 percent are black, 13 percent are Hispanic, and 42 percent are white. Of the 180 people on Alabama’s death row, 91 (51 percent) are black and 86 (48 percent) are white. Prominent researchers have documented a pattern of discrimination in the application of the death penalty based on the race of the victim, race of the defendant, or both, in nearly every state that uses capital punishment. Each year in Alabama, nearly 65 percent of all murders involve black victims, yet 73 percent of the people currently awaiting execution in Alabama were convicted of crimes in which the victims were white. Fewer than 5 percent of all murders in Alabama involve black defendants and white victims, but over 52 percent of black death row prisoners have been sentenced for killing someone white.
The chief prosecutors in death penalty states are overwhelmingly white (only about one percent are black), as are judges, defense attorneys, and even juries. None of Alabama’s 19 appellate court judges and only two of the 42 elected District Attorneys in Alabama are black. Racially biased use of peremptory strikes and illegal racial discrimination in jury selection remains widespread, particularly in serious criminal cases and capital cases. Hundreds of people of color called for jury service have been illegally excluded from juries after prosecutors asserted pretextual reasons to justify their removal. For example, in Houston County, Alabama, eight of ten African Americans qualified for jury service have been struck by prosecutors from death penalty cases. More than 23 capital cases in Alabama have been reversed after it was proven that prosecutors illegally excluded black people from jury service. Despite decades of evidence showing that the administration of the death penalty is permeated with racial bias, courts and legislatures’ refusal to address race in any comprehensive way reveals a fundamental flaw in America’s justice system.
The failure to provide adequate counsel to capital defendants and death row prisoners is a defining feature of the American death penalty. Whether a defendant will be sentenced to death typically depends more on the quality of his legal team than any other factor. While some lawyers have provided outstanding representation to capital defendants, few defendants facing capital charges can afford to hire an attorney, so they are appointed attorneys who are frequently overworked, underpaid, and/or inexperienced in trying death penalty cases. In some cases, lawyers representing defendants in capital trials have slept through parts of trial, shown up in court intoxicated, and failed to do any work at all in preparation for the sentencing phase.
Alabama is the only state in the country without a state-funded program to provide legal assistance to death row prisoners. There is no state-wide public defender program in the state and, in some counties, defendants have been sentenced to death after trials where they were represented by a lawyer who did not meet even the minimum requirement of five years of criminal defense experience. Nearly half of the people on Alabama’s death row were represented at trial by appointed lawyers whose compensation for out-of-court preparation was capped at $1000.