Are you in favor of Capital Punishment?

If you do support state-sponsored killing, do you prefer hanging, firing squad, lethal injection or death by electric chair?

Is the current method of execution in America Racist and muddled in gender biased while being based on misinterpreted Laws of Moses using “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” as a rationale for killing?

There is a rather gruesome conversation going on in the state of Nebraska right now concerning their use of the electric chair as the sole method of capital punishment.

The argument isn’t over the issue of using the chair or not or if killing people is right or not.

The discussion concerns just how much electricity it takes to “humanely” kill someone:

The protocol calls for the application of 2,450 volts of electricity for 15 seconds. The application is repeated if the inmate has a pulse or heart sounds 15 minutes later. The Corrections Department adopted the protocol after a state judge ruled the old procedure was inconsistent with state law.Under the earlier protocol, used in three previous executions, condemned inmates received 2,450 volts for eight seconds, followed by 480 volts for 22 seconds. The sequence was repeated after a 20-second pause. Judge Robert Hippe of Gering said in a 2000 order that the protocol created the “potential for the inmate to regain consciousness and experience substantial and unnecessary pain.” He also said the protocol didn’t jibe with state law, which called for the uninterrupted flow of electricity until the inmate’s death.

The matter of electrocution is being discussed in Nebraska because of problems found on the bodies of the previously state-sponsored dead:

In his order, Bataillon referred to coroner’s reports on John Joubert and Robert Williams that both had blisters on their bodies after being executed in Nebraska’s electric chair. Williams’ body reportedly was charred on both sides of a knee and the top of his head, the judge said, and a witness to the 1994 execution of Harold Otey said Otey was still breathing after the first two jolts. Other testimony suggested a person could still be conscious even if his heart stopped, said Bataillon, who wrote that “the pause in application of the current is likely more painful than a continuous jolt would be.”

Does the brain die before the heart? How does one’s weight, body type and muscular structure respond to the application of deadly voltages?

According to Wright, who has researched the effects of electricity on the body, the current shuts down the brain so a person cannot feel pain. In the report he submitted to the Corrections Department, Wright said that even 125 volts have been shown to “produce instant loss of electrical function” in the brain. He said the 2,450 volts used by Nebraska is “somewhat higher” than the voltage used in the first seven electrocutions in the country. “Thus,” he wrote, “the effectiveness of the 2,450 voltage in producing death cannot be doubted.”Wright, who said he reviewed about 1,200 articles in preparing the report, said the application of 15 seconds of electricity, first proposed by a researcher in 1890, should be sufficient to cause death. But he cautioned against applying the voltage for more than 30 seconds, saying it could cause burning or start a body on fire. He also said the human heart can continue to beat even if it’s removed from the chest — Wright said he knew of one that beat for 18 minutes — and thus recommended the department wait that length of time to determine death.

Having such a gory conversation about killing via the electric chair makes one wonder if the chair has outlived its usefulness.

It seems a state-sponsored beheading would be a quicker, a kinder and a more reliable method of killing someone than the “maybe this much’ll do it” wondering about the effects of electricity on a condemned body. Beyond Nebraska we need to wonder on a grander scale if there is Racial discrimination and Gender Bias in finding your end on Death Row:

  • Of persons under sentence of death in 2005: 1,805 were white 1,372 were black 31 were American Indian 34 were Asian 12 were of unknown race.
  • In 2006, 53 persons in 14 States were executed — 24 in Texas; 5 in Ohio; 4 each in Florida, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Virginia; and 1 each in Indiana, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, California, Montana, and Nevada.
  • Of persons executed in 2006: 32 were white 21 were black
  • All 53 inmates executed in 2006 were men.
  • Lethal injection accounted for 52 of the executions and electrocution for one.
  • Thirty-eight States and the Federal government in 2005 had capital statutes.

Here’s the Racial breakdown in America according to the latest Census results:

  • White – 80.2%
  • Black – 12.8%
  • American Indian/Alaska Natives – 1%
  • Asian – 4.3%

Are you concerned with the disparity between Whites and Blacks on Death Row/Killed compared to their percentage of the population in America? Why are there so many Blacks on Death Row? Do they really kill at an astronomical rate compared to Whites — or is the justice system jiggered to punish Blacks with death more than Whites?

Is Death Row gender bias sustained by the courts — or are men just more frequent and innately talented killers? If we want the states to kill people — shouldn’t we require that death be found fairly and equally across all Racial lines and gender?


  1. Hi David,
    A seriously shocking subject for this hour.
    If we recast your statistics in terms of all percentages,
    1) there is not much disparity between the number of blacks v. the number of whites executed, compared with the total percentage of blacks and whites on death row.
    42% of the persons under sentence of death in 2005 were black.
    39.6% of the 53 inmates that were executed in 2006 were black.
    55.4% of the persons under sentence of death in 2005 were white.
    60.4% of the 53 inmates that were executed in 2006 were white.
    2) There is a great disparity between the percentage of blacks in the population, 12.8% and those that were on death row/killed. I think the total number of blacks v. whites in prison against the total population would be a telling statistic.
    3) Since only 1.9% of the 53 executions that took place in 2006 were by electrocution, the rest being by lethal injection, it would appear the electric chair is an outmoded device.
    4) Since 100% of the 53 executions that took place were men, it would seem that our society is gender biased. A statistic that showed the number of men v. women on death row would be useful in this analysis.
    I am not for capital punishment, except in extreme cases. My knowledge of the electric chair was gleaned from Stephen King’s “The Green Mile.”

  2. Donna —
    Here’s an excellent interactive Death Penalty database:
    When 39% of the people killed on Death Row are Black and Blacks make up 12.8% of the population — there is a Racial bias at play. I don’t think general imprisonment percentages are important when we’re talking about Death Row sentences and executions.
    The electric chair is the most vicious and unreliable/whole body state-sponsored disfiguring killing device available.

    It is indeed rare for a woman to be given the death sentence in the United States. Of the 3,487 persons on death row in the U.S. as of June 2004, only 49 of them, or 1.3 percent, were women.
    In 1968, 517 people were on Death Row.
    In 2007, 3,350 people are on Death Row.

  3. Hi David,
    Okay, 39% of the inmates executed were black, and blacks make up 12.8% of the population. Let’s compare that to 64.4% of the inmates executed were white, and whites make up 80.2% of the population. But there are a greater number of blacks per total population in prison than there are whites per total population. Of the number of inmates executed, the percentages compared to the total of each race on death row are not that disparate.
    Why is there a larger percentage of blacks per the total population in prison? Is it racial bias that put them there, whether on death row or serving life sentences? Is it a function of a system that is prejudiced, or is the basis cultural?
    Some of both, I think.

  4. I tend to agree with Donna; why do statistical disparities always translate into a perception of bias? Does any rational personal truly believe that African-Americans are truly less likely than whites as a group to commit murder or other criminal acts? I always find it amusing that many people want to excuse societal problems in the black community by shifting the blame to a “racist” society. There are undoubtedly racists in our society (both black and white), along with long standing cultural influences that contribute to black underachievement, and the resulting criminal activity. But the biggest problem in the African American community is the prevalent attitude of entitlement, lack of emphasis on education, and skewed moral values. An excellent example of this is the “No Snitchin’ ” ethos that has gained such a footing in the black community. A revealing discussion of this can be seen at As long as self destructive attitudes such as these exist, there is very little that can be done about the disparity in criminal activity or in execution rates between blacks and other racial groups. As far as the gender bias, there is no argument there; Men are far more likely to commit murder than women. This is both statistically and empirically obvious. Why do we have such a problem accepting the fact that blacks are more likely, regardless of causation, to commit murder, and yet we have no problem accepting a gender bias? Is this the dirty little secret that no one in America wants to honestly discuss or accept, due to an extreme denial in which we are all engaged?

  5. Donna —
    The Racial disparity and the application of the Death Penalty is deeper than just the execution. If you’re Black and if you kill a Black you are less likely to be sentenced to death than if a Black kills a White person.

    The color of a defendant and victim’s skin plays a crucial and unacceptable role in deciding who receives the death penalty in America. People of color have accounted for a disproportionate 43 % of total executions since 1976 and 55 % of those currently awaiting execution. A moratorium of the death penalty is necessary to address the blatant prejudice in our application of the death penalty.
    The jurisdictions with the highest percentages of minorities on its death row:
    U.S. Military (86%)
    Colorado (80%)
    U.S. Government (77%)
    Louisiana (72%)
    Pennsylvania (70%)
    While white victims account for approximately one-half of all murder victims, 80% of all Capital cases involve white victims. Furthermore, as of October 2002, 12 people have been executed where the defendant was white and the murder victim black, compared with 178 black defendants executed for murders with white victims.

    COLLEGE PARK, Md. Race affects the way death penalty cases are handled in Maryland, mainly influencing prosecutors’ decisions early in the process, says a new study from a University of Maryland criminologist and statistician. The study also finds substantial variations in the way Maryland jurisdictions deal with capital cases.
    “Disparities in treatment start at the earliest stages of prosecution,” says Raymond Paternoster, the study’s principal investigator. “These differences are not exacerbated at trial or actual sentencing phases, but they also don’t get corrected then. So disparities persist.”

    Data from 300 homicides involving an aggravating felony were examined to determine what factors influence the prosecutor’s decision to seek the death penalty. It was found that the race of the victim was significantly related to the decision to seek the death penalty even when several legally relevant factors were taken into account. The data also revealed that black killers of whites were more likely and black killers of blacks less likely to have the death penalty requested. A breakdown of homicides into those involving a single aggravating felony and those involving multiple felonies revealed that racial effects were stronger in the former category. There was some evidence that this difference in the effects of race reflected a different threshold of tolerance for white and black murders. Black victim homicides resulted in a death request only when they crossed a threshold of aggravation that was higher than that found for white deaths.

  6. There’s no perception of bias, Mark. There is historical racial bias/gender bias all throughout the process of getting to Death Row on both the federal and state levels:

    Racial minorities are being prosecuted under federal death penalty law far beyond their proportion in the general population or the population of criminal offenders. Analysis of prosecutions under the federal death penalty provisions of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 [2] reveals that 89% of the defendants selected for capital prosecution have been either African-American or Mexican-American. Moreover, the number of prosecutions under this Act has been increasing over the past two years with no decline in the racial disparities. All ten of the recently approved federal capital prosecutions have been against black defendants. This pattern of inequality adds to the mounting evidence that race continues to play an unacceptable part in the application of capital punishment in America today. It confirms Justice Blackmun’s recent conclusion that “the death penalty experiment has failed.”

    This study uses the Barnett scale of homicide severity to analyze the capital sentencing process in Kentucky. In his analysis of Georgia cases, Barnett found that whites were disproportionately the victims of homicides that the scale considered as most serious. This conclusion was cited as an explanation for racial disparity in capital sentencing. When the scale is applied to Kentucky data and the level of seriousness of the murder is controlled, however, we Jind that prosecutors were more likely to seek the death penalty in cases in which blacks killed whites and that juries were more likely to sentence to death blacks who killed whites.

    This article explores the roots of white support for capital punishment in the United States. Our analysis addresses individual-level and contextual factors, paying particular attention to how racial attitudes and racial composition influence white support for capital punishment. Our findings suggest that white support hinges on a range of attitudes wider than prior research has indicated, including social and governmental trust and individualist and authoritarian values. Extending individual-level analyses, we also find that white responses to capital punishment are sensitive to local context. Perhaps most important, our results clarify the impact of race in two ways. First, racial prejudice emerges here as a comparatively strong predictor of white support for the death penalty. Second, black residential proximity functions to polarize white opinion along lines of racial attitude. As the black percentage of county residents rises, so too does the impact of racial prejudice on white support for capital punishment.

    Here’s an interesting article on the disparity between Race and gender in public schools corporal punishment:

    Anecdotal evidence has long suggested that boys in general and African American males in particular are disproportionately represented among students who receive corporal punishment (CP) in school. Until 1994, no national data disaggregated by race and gender were available to determine if African American boys are indeed subjected to physical discipline at excessive rates. This study provides the first analysis of such race/gender-disaggregated data; it also lamentably confirms the popular belief. The incidence of African American males receiving CP was found to be extremely high, as was the likelihood ratio comparing Black male students’ CP rates to those for other race/gender cohorts, especially White females. Limitations of the data set and implications of the findings are discussed.

    Women also tend to kill intimates instead of strangers — and killing someone you don’t know is traditionally viewed as worse than someone you know:

    Despite the paucity of research on the death penalty and gender discrimination, it is widely supposed that women murderers are chivalrously spared the death sentence. This supposition is fueled by the relatively small number of women who are condemned. This article argues that women are represented on contemporary U.S. death rows in numbers commensurate with the infrequency of female commission of those crimes which our society labels sufficiently reprehensible to merit capital punishment. Additionally, preliminary investigation suggests that death-sentenced women are more likely than death-sentenced men to have killed intimates, although the explanation for this disparity is not yet at hand. It is further argued, on the basis of a content analysis of state capital statutes, that there is a form of gender bias inimical to the interests of women in our capital punishment law: The death penalty is a dramatic symbol of the imputation of greater seriousness to economic and other predatory murder as compared with domestic murder.

  7. The Supreme Court has weighed in on the matter of Race and Death Row in Texas:

    The Supreme Court overturned the 20-year-old murder conviction of a Texas death-row inmate on Monday on the ground that the jury selection had been infected by racial discrimination.
    It was the court’s second decision in three years on behalf of the inmate, Thomas Miller-El, who is black, and the justices’ second rebuke of the federal appeals court that handled his case. The decision itself made no new law; instead, it reflected the judgment of the 6-to-3 majority that the lower courts’ refusal to remedy a failure in the criminal justice system now required correction at the highest level.
    Justice David H. Souter’s majority opinion, noting that ”the very integrity of the courts is jeopardized” by racial bias in jury selection, examined aspects of the selection process in unusual detail and concluded that the state’s ”attempt at a race-neutral rationalization” for what occurred ”simply fails to explain what the prosecutors did.”
    When the evidence is ”viewed cumulatively,” Justice Souter said, ”its direction is too powerful to conclude anything but discrimination.” The case was the latest of several recent Supreme Court decisions to express concern about the quality of justice being meted out by the state courts in Texas and by the federal courts that oversee the cases when inmates raise questions of federal law.
    In Mr. Miller-El’s 1986 trial in the death of a clerk during a robbery at a Holiday Inn in Dallas in 1985, the prosecution used its peremptory strikes to remove 10 of 11 black potential jurors, providing explanations that the Supreme Court found ”incredible.” Under the writ of habeas corpus that the Supreme Court granted, Texas will now have to retry or release him.

  8. I would suppose the argument for blacks receiving more severe penalties hinges on the supposition that blacks kill whites in numbers proportionate to whites killing blacks. I can’t imagine a great number of blacks are the victims of gang violence, car-jacking, murder committed during robberies, etc., that are perpetrated by whites. I fully understand that statistics don’t lie, but sometimes the truth is obscured by only focusing on numbers, and not other factors that influence human behavior. Perhaps there is a bias against blacks in our court system; however that bias has a basis based upon prior events that have served to reinforce those biases and opinions. The whole racism argument overlooks the fact that our opinions of anyone or any group are based on what we see and perceive to be the truth. I seriously doubt that the majority of whites, or even a significant percentage, could be categorized as “racists”. However, in saying that, it is difficult to not be influenced in a negative way when we are constantly bombarded by negative images; i.e. “gangsta rap”, that humiliates and marginalizes women, promotes violence, drug abuse, disrespect for authority, rampant materialism, lack of responsibility and accountability, and a litany or other unconstructive influences; black “leaders” and politicians who’s only contribution to the discussion is to point a finger of blame and cry “racism”, while offering no realistic solutions that would target the real problems, and blacks who disavow personal responsibility and accountability and instead would rather blame someone else for their problems. At some point you can’t fault intelligent, responsible people for revolting against this poison in our society. Racism, whether overt or clandestine, is a symptom, the awful result of a sickness that is destroying black culture. I don’t say this to excuse racism or racist attitudes, and I recognize many racist attitudes are based on ignorance and misunderstanding. However, it is much easier to changes one’s own negative behaviors that is the true root of the problem, than to attempt to alter someone else’s thoughts and attitudes that result from their exposure to your behavior.
    Labeling the courts as “racist” and arguing that as a rationale for doing away with the death penalty is ludicrous. It only shifts the focus of blame for inequities in the court system from its true source. Blacks are not represented proportionately in Congress. Should we do away with elections since there is an obvious bias in the electoral process? There are far more blacks in the NBA than whites; this is an obvious bias against whites who can’t jump, run or dribble as well as their black counterparts. Should we have a moratorium on basketball games until this pressing social issue is addressed? Citing statistics concerning who gets prosecuted and who is sentenced has more to do with the general ability of whites to afford better legal representation during the process and therefore receive preferential sentencing. O.J. did pretty well with his high- priced legal team. It’s more a question of haves and have not’s; similar disparities exist with low income whites compared to affluent whites.

  9. I provided you lots of scholarly evidence beyond my personal opinion, Mark, to prove my argument — if you’d like to reciprocate, we’d love to read the scholarly, provable, evidence beyond your personal beliefs.

  10. Hi David,
    Racism and discrimination pervade our society. They are manifest in every walk of life, including the justice system.
    I cannot argue, though, that the sole reason for a disproportionate number of blacks being executed is racial bias. This answer is too simple.
    How did those on death row get there? Certainly, they were convicted of a heinous crime by a jury of twelve. So, even though it was the prosecutor’s decision to seek the death penalty (and your statistical evidence supports racial bias at this point) a jury of twelve made the final call that they were “guilty.”
    Are we to fault the juries, along with the prosecutor, in the justice system? Are they all prejudiced? Would an all-white jury automatically convict a black man of killing a white man? Would an all-black jury automatically convict a white man for killing a black man? I am sure this has happened, but I would like to have more faith in humankind. I would like to think that we have progressed a little beyond the days of cross-burning and lynchings.
    The issue under debate is complex. Each case in the justice system is tried on its own merit, according to state law, with an individual set of circumstances and a jury approved by counselors on both sides.
    At the sentencing phase, enter the judge. Are we to assume that, because there are more white judges than black, that justice has not been served?
    We cannot ignore the playing of the race card, but we also cannot ignore one of the major driving forces behind the committing of a crime. Poverty rears its ugly head and can drive those in its grasp to rape, robbery, murder.
    There is a cultural and environmental implication to all of this. Many of those driven to crime come from public housing developments where sometimes hope is abandoned in favor of immediate gratification.
    This is a tough issue to debate.

  11. I have provided over 11 scholarly resources, Donna, that demonstrate historic and current trends that there is, indeed, Racial discrimination in court prosecutions and on Death Row.
    If you choose not to believe those resources and prefer to ask questions instead of providing your own antithetical empirical proof, that’s your decision.
    I’m comfortable I made my argument and made my case.

  12. Hi David,
    I believe if you read my last comment, I acknowledge that racial discrimination is present in court proceedings and Death Row. I believe, however, that environmental and cultural factors also play a role in how the inmate got to that point in the first place.

  13. Dave. I’m a long time reader & first time writer. Keep up the good work.

  14. Welcome to Urban Semiotic, John, and I thank you for your comment and support and I hope you’ll comment even more in the future! 😀

  15. David,
    Is it easy to target the black convict because there is a pre conceived idea that Blacks are crime-prone?
    It was hard for me to believe, but I had the first glimpse of it through “Mississippi Burning”, “A Soldier’s Story”, and “A Time to Kill”. They were just movies though, but movies are mostly made based on real life.
    As you can have a glimpse of racism in India, if you watch “Mr. and Mrs. Iyer”.
    Coming back to the point, the articles below just gave me a shock.

  16. Thanks for those excellent links, Katha!
    I think Blacks are an easy target for prosecution because many of them who are incarcerated grew up in poor areas and didn’t have the same access to education, jobs and the corridors of power.
    They also rely on public defenders instead of paying for private attorneys. If you don’t have the money and the influence to fight the charges — even if you’re guilty — you stand a greater chance of losing big in court and doing hard time and even facing death.

  17. I didn’t even know anybody used the electric chair anymore – I thought it was all lethal injection. I thought it was considered inhumane. But in response to what you said about cutting people heads off- the head can live and be aware for several seconds after it has been severed from the body. Eeeeeewww.
    To me, it seems that its hard to ask a question about the fairness of the death penalty, when it could be several factors in the criminal justice system that lead to the discrepancy. So I decided to look up the facts (because I’m obsessive).
    For example, 39% of prison inmates are black, and 87% are male. Of all inmates27% of black offenders were there for violent crimes, to 21% of white offenders who were violent (also, 27% Hispanic). 26% of all males were there for violent crimes, while only 17% of females were. So, from these statistics, it appears that blacks are more likely to be incarcerated for violent crimes than whites, and males more than females. Blacks are also more likely to be incarcerated in the first place than whites, and males more likely than females. So, it could be said that if there is racism inherent in the allocating of death penalties, then it is inherent in the rest of the system as well, since the number of blacks is almost equal to the number of whites in prison despite their lower population.
    So I think that this certainly can be blamed on racism, though what kind is unsure. Is it the fault of the judges, the juries, the cops? Or it is because a higher rate of blacks are below the poverty line than whites (25% of blacks to 8.3% of whites) and how much does poverty have to do with violent crime? Definitely, there is a problem with racism in America, and I think the problem is so pervasive it’s impossible to tell where one part of it stops an another begins.
    Personally, I think that the death penalty can never be perfect, and that is my major problem with it. Sure, some people commit crimes that deserve the worst punishment-but which crimes are these, and how susceptible is the system to social and cultural prejudices? As long as people are in control, it is flawed.
    And my last factoid: of the 24 killed in Texas, 14 were black, 6 were Latino, and 4 were white. (got that from this chart)Coming from Texas – I think it may have something to do with racism.

  18. Hi Stacy —
    I agree poverty has a lot to do with this problem of Racism, Incarceration and Death Row. If you are born poor, and are of color in America, you will have a harder time getting up and out and getting an education to become literate.
    Abolitionist Frederick Douglas believed the number one issue for Blacks — as far back as the early 1800’s — in America was illiteracy. He rightly believed if you cannot read you have no power because others can control you by telling you what they want you to know and not what you need to know and you can’t argue with them because you can never know what is true or not. If you can’t read you can’t sign a contract. You can’t even vote because you can’t read the ballot.
    Frederick taught himself how to read by working the docks and learning the names of shipping boats and applying the sounds he heard to the words he saw written on the ships. Then, after he caught on to the sounds and letter order, he then began to read the bags of all the cargo he was loading.
    The key to more Blacks being on Death Row than Whites is directly linked to if they killed a White person or a Black person. If they killed a White person their changes are substantially higher that they will get the death penalty.
    I provided a link to an article earlier in the comments stream that explains why Whites support the death penalty more than Blacks… it’s telling… it’s the ultimate form of power and control of the power majority…

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