Is the California Death Penalty Fairly Implemented?

California has not executed a death row inmate in more than a decade. Lawsuits and appeals over the state’s lethal injection protocol have stalled the progress of all current and pending death row cases. During this time, many have questioned whether the death penalty is implemented fairly in California.

A review of statistics and evidence indicate that the death penalty may not be fairly implemented, after all. California can probably expect new legal challenges to its capital punishment process in the near future.

Issues With California’s Death Penalty

Many panels and groups have been formed over the past few years to investigate whether or not the death penalty is fairly implemented. These studies have determined that there are a number of issues that may indicate that the death penalty is not fair. Issues with the sentencing and implementation of the death penalty include:

  • Racial minorities disproportionately sentenced to death;
  • Fraud and mistakes in forensic labs;
  • No standard protocols for using forensic evidence, confidential informants, or eye-witness testimony;
  • Prosecutorial misconduct;
  • Lack of qualified death row defense attorneys; and
  • No standardization for lethal injection protocol.

Death Penalty May Be Disproportionately Applied to Minorities

California sentenced 302 criminal defendants to death by lethal injection between 2000 and 2009. One study reviewed all homicide charges in California during this time. The group found that “race and ethnicity of victim” was a “key factor in determining who is sentenced to die in this state.

The race of both the defendant and victim play a huge role in whether or not the death penalty will be imposed. An African American person is six times more likely to be the victim of murder in California than a white person. Despite this fact, a defendant is much more likely to be sentenced to death for killing a white person than an African American or Latino person. In California, approximately 27 percent of murder victims are white. However, 80 percent of all death row inmates who have been executed in California have been convicted of killing a white person.

Inherent Racial Bias Threatens Fair Death Penalty System

Killing a white person will significantly increase the chances of being sentenced to death in California. This is, however, not necessarily the result of an outward or malicious racial bias. Racial discrimination and bias are ingrained in the criminal justice system. Death row inmates are granted a lengthy and in-depth appeals process. However, the fact remains that the current system disproportionately puts minorities on death row. California lacks the standards and protocols to ensure that racial bias is not a factor in these life and death decisions.

The racial makeup of California law enforcement officers and prosecutors is also problematic. Whites are the second largest racial group in California, second to Latinos, accounting for 38 percent of the population. However, 55 percent of California law enforcement officers and 70 percent of prosecutors in California are white. Law enforcement and the criminal justice system are not proportionate to the racial breakdown of the state. This does not allow for a fair and unbiased criminal justice system. This could help to explain why those who kill white victims are much more likely to be sentenced to death in California.

These groups are developing a number of suggestions to help guide the California criminal justice system in a better direction. Many believe that getting rid of the death penalty altogether is the best way to implement the criminal justice system more fairly. Others believe that there are systemic changes that can be made to make the implementation of the death penalty just. As California residents become more aware of the cost and problems with the death penalty, they may be more likely to vote in favor of abolishing it.

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