“Even under the most sophisticated death penalty statutes, race continues to play a major role in determining who shall live and who shall die.”
– Justice Harry Blackmun
People of color bear the brunt of the criminal legal system’s failures across the board, and the death penalty is no different. Harmful racial disparities infect every stage of a capital case. From policing to jury selection, discrimination is clear and pervasive.
Following the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, unequal sentencing statutes became unconstitutional and were formally outlawed. During Reconstruction, whites in the South devised new ways to control and intimidate newly freed Black people. In place of the unequal sentencing statutes, laws gave sentencing discretion in capital cases to all-white juries, who overwhelmingly spared white defendants while frequently sentencing black defendants to death. Executions took the form of hangings, which remained public in some Southern states well into the twentieth century.
Lynchings declined in the Southern United States through the 1920’s and 30’s, as judicial executions became more common. The standard method of execution shifted from hanging to electrocution and finally to lethal injection. The connections between lynching and the death penalty have become less explicit, but modern-day capital punishment is linked to the unequal sentencing laws of the slavery era and the legal and extralegal lynchings of Reconstruction.