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Racial Bias Taints Death Penalty Cases In Tennessee, National Report Finds

Tennessee Dept. of Correction

A new national report on racial disparities in the death penalty explores two high-profile cases that are winding their way through the courts here in Tennessee. The analysis, published Tuesday by the Death Penalty Information Center, highlights the ways Black people are more likely to be discriminated against at every step — from arrest to jury selection to execution.

The report says Shelby County prosecutors used racial tropes to paint Pervis Payne as a drug user “looking for sex.” And in Nashville, the district attorney struck Black people from the jury in Abu-Ali Abdur’Rahman’s case.

Researcher Ngozi Ndulue says these cases show how systemic racism stacks the odds against Black people who have been accused of capital crimes.

“You can have prosecutors who are trying cases year after year after year and are using these same tactics,” she says. “There’s a real impact on the administration of justice.”

But Ndulue says it’s not just prosecutors. Racial bias among police, judges and jurors — whether it’s explicit or implicit — also increases Black people’s chances of execution.

“We have deep societal roots to the way that we see each other,” Ndulue says. “We also have deep societal roots to the way that capital punishment has been used.”

The 87-page report traces the connections between racism and executions throughout U.S. history. Ndulue writes that the death penalty has been applied disparately based on race since colonial times, when Black people were executed at small but disproportionate rates.

In the antebellum period, she writes, capital punishment was used to suppress rebellions. Some states also instituted mandatory death sentences specifically for Black defendants, when white defendants could be sentenced to life in prison for the same crime.

After the Civil War, Ndulue writes, those disparities proliferated beyond the confines of the courtroom, through lynchings. She says that legacy lives on in the modern use of the death penalty.

“There’s this interplay between the legal system and this extralegal violence against Black people that we still see shadows of today,” Ndulue says.

The report also analyzes data from dozens of studies that have uncovered racial disparities in death penalty cases. One found that nearly 90% of the 455 men who were executed for rape between 1930 and 1972 were Black. Nearly half a century later, in 2019, 42% of death row prisoners were Black, though Black people accounted for only about 13% of the overall U.S. population.

The race of victims also plays a role, according to Ndulue. She writes that, when a person is executed, the victim is white 75% of the time, even though just half of people who are murdered are white.

Those disparities have reframed the conversation surrounding Payne’s and Abdur’Rahman’s cases, which were first tried in the late 1980s and are now in their final round of appeals.

Payne is scheduled for execution on Dec. 3, though his defense team has asked the state to allow them to conduct DNA testing on newly discovered evidence. Abdur’Rahman was supposed to be executed in April, but the date was postponed after Nashville’s district attorney offered to exchange his death sentence for life in prison due to racial discrimination during jury selection at his trial.

The state has challenged the latest developments in both cases. Judges are expected to issue rulings soon. Ndulue says the issues their cases raise, and even the protests against police brutality that spilled into the streets this summer, are all interconnected.

“We want to make sure that, as we talk about the death penalty, in an age where we’re really having to contend with current issues of racial injustice, that we continue to have that conversation in the context of this history of the death penalty,” she says.

Samantha Max covers criminal justice for WPLN and joins the newroom through the Report for America program. This is her second year with Report for America: She spent her first year in Macon, Ga., covering health and inequity for The Telegraph and
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