Justice for All Murder Victims

This piece was originally posted at California Progress Report.

Murder is something I know well. In November of 1997, three days before Thanksgiving, my fiancé, Steve Henry was murdered execution style on the streets of Kingston, Jamaica. His body was stuffed in a barrel. I later learned that 1000 people were murdered in Jamaica that year. The pain and grief is hard to remember now.  I felt as though someone had taken a meat cleaver to my heart.  I remembered screaming in anger at God: “Why? Why?”

I have many memories of that dreadful time but one memory is of relevance to the topic at hand. I remember knowing that despite this grievous loss, I still was opposed to the death penalty, to the state taking someone’s life.

Sadly, my experience is shared by many murder victim family members across California, particularly people of color. The majority of murder victims in California are African-American or Latino, and 45% of murder cases in the state are not even solved.

While cities like Los Angeles can’t afford to pay homicide investigators overtime to investigate and close murder cases, we spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the state’s broken and biased death penalty system.

The Radelet-Pierce study, the first statewide study on race, ethnicity and geography in California death sentencing, found that those who kill whites are over three times more likely to be sentenced to die as those who kill African-Americans. And, those who kill whites are over four times more likely to be sentenced to die as those who kill Latinos.

A new study just released by the ACLU of Northern California found that Latinos comprised a staggering 50 percent of new death sentences in 2007, 38 percent of death sentences in 2008, and 31 percent of death sentences in 2009. In contrast, Latinos comprised only 16 percent of those sentenced to death in 2001.

In order to address bias in our capital punishment system, Senator Gil Cedillo and the Equal Justice Society introduced SB 1331, the California Racial Justice Act, in January 2010. Modeled after a similar law recently enacted in North Carolina, the California Racial Justice Act allows a defendant to challenge a death sentence on the grounds that race was a significant factor in the choice to seek or impose the death penalty. The bill recently cleared the California Senate Public Safety Committee and will soon appear before the Appropriations Committee.

My organization, the Equal Justice Society, is a sponsor of this bill. We are a national legal and policy group working to identify and eradicate racial discrimination in the criminal justice system. We have chosen to zealously support SB 1331 because it represents a significant step toward identifying and eradicating racial discrimination in California’s capital punishment system.

But my interest is personal, too. As someone who has been touched by violent crime, I know this bill is important. Many people assume that the death sentences in our state are imposed based on the gravity of the crime, rather location or race. We all would like to think that prosecutors, jurors and judges leave their biases at the courthouse door in order to ensure that every defendant gets a fair trial.
Unfortunately, statistics show this often isn’t the case.

The problems deeply embedded in our legal process have been pointed out before – the race of a murder victim is the factor with the most weight when it comes to who California determines to sentence to death. African-Americans and Latinos are disproportionately represented on California’s death row.

One prosecutor in California testified that his office routinely dismissed African-American women from juries in death penalty cases. And the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice has found it is likely we will execute an innocent person under our current death penalty system unless we pour millions of additional dollars into the system.

The California Racial Justice Act would help bring fairness to our system. It would enable defendants who were likely sentenced to death because of racial bias to demonstrate that in court, and request a fair sentence. It would increase the integrity of the California criminal justice system and help ensure that the punishment always fits the crime.

Two states, Kentucky and North Carolina, have already implemented Racial Justice Acts. There is increasing support for the notion that, as long as a state continues to impose the death penalty, it should make sure to impose it only in cases where it is warranted by the crime. The California Racial Justice Act would be a major step toward achieving that goal.

More and more Californians are convinced that the death penalty should be replaced by permanent imprisonment to ensure swift and certain punishment for those who commit the most serious crimes. We must investigate all murders equally and give grieving families equal due – no matter their race or background.

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