The Death Penalty: A Symbol of Which Lives Matter, and Which Lives Don’t

The Death Penalty: A Symbol of Which Lives Matter, and Which Lives Don’t

By Frank R. Baumgartner, Professor of Political Science, UNC-Chapel Hill

NOTE: As our nation grapples with the harsh reality that our criminal justice system operates very differently depending upon the race of the people involved, two new reports shed more light on the problem – one by Common Justice and another by Professor Frank Baumgartner who shares some of his research in this article.

Both point to the disturbing conclusion that the pain and trauma associated with victimization are not seen and treated equally by law enforcement and other officials charged with addressing the needs of victims and keeping communities safe.

These disparities are most shocking when it comes to African American men. While African American men are most likely to be victims of homicide, there is consistent failure to take that victimization seriously and to provide necessary support and services that should be available to all victims of crime. Instead, there is a tendency to view and treat African American men as suspects and perpetrators only—despite the fact that African American men are no more likely to engage in criminal conduct than their White counterparts.

This is certainly not a context in which the death penalty can be deemed to operate fairly and free of bias and one more reason why the practice needs to be abolished.

Diann Rust-Tierney, Executive Director, National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty

In a recently published article, I wrote about the disconnect between crime victimization and the use of capital punishment. Young black men are, by far, at the greatest risk of violence and homicide victimization in the US, but their killers are extremely unlikely to face the death penalty. The most recent statistics from the US Department of Justice show that, between 2002 and 2011, black men between the ages of 20 and 25 had a rate of homicide victimization of almost 100 per 100,000 population: one in a thousand. White men of the same age had a rate of about 11 per 100,000. For women of the same age range, the rates were 11 for blacks, and less than 3 for whites. A recent study by the Vera Institute discusses in wrenching terms the personal cost of violence among young men of color: They suffer from their experiences with violence in their educational outcomes, trust in authority, health consequences, employment opportunities, and in their own subsequent commission of violent acts. The report suggests that all of these are predictable outcomes of the epidemic of crime in many communities. But we refuse to look at these young men as victims; instead we insist on looking at them as perpetrators. We blame them, seeing only offenders where there are also many victims.

The death penalty is often explained by its supporters as a needed deterrence. If it were used to deter violence, it would be used in the cases where the violence is more prevalent. In fact, it is used instead disproportionately in those cases where the victims of violence are at the least risk of it. White females have very low rates of homicide victimization (see the statistics above), but their killers are executed at much higher rates. For example, in the modern history of the death penalty in North Carolina, white women make up 12 percent of all homicide victims, but 43 percent of the victims of those inmates later executed. Black men are by far the most likely victims of homicides, constituting 43 percent of all victims, though they are approximately 11 percent of the population. But their killers are very unlikely to be convicted, sentenced to death, and executed. The figure below shows these patterns, comparing all homicide victims with those victims of inmates later executed.

(Click to expand graph)

(Click on each graph to expand image)

In fact, North Carolina has executed only one inmate who killed a single black male. Another inmate had multiple victims including a black male, making the sum total of two black males as compared to 20 white males, 24 white females, 8 black females and 2 of other races among the 56 victims of inmates executed. These patterns are, in fact, typical of the death penalty nationally. While blacks make up about 12 percent of the US population, they are almost half of the homicide victims. But among the victims of killers who were later executed, blacks make up just 15 percent of the total. The figure below compares the victims of white and black inmates executed, covering every execution in the US from 1977 through 2013.


On the left, we see that whites are typically executed following crimes in which they kill other whites. In fact, just 33 black males and 31 black females were among the victims of white killers later executed. On the right side, we see that blacks are also more likely to be executed for killing white victims than for killing blacks. This may not seem surprising until we consider that for both whites and blacks, the vast majority of crimes occur within race.


Whites and blacks commit homicides within race, 85 to 94 percent of the time. Whites are executed 90 percent of the time for killing other whites. Blacks, however, are executed for killing blacks less than 40 percent of the time, but their victims are overwhelmingly black. In other words, it is statistically very difficult to be executed for the crime of killing a black man. In our article, in fact, we show that among killers with just a single victim, only 17 whites have been executed for the crime of killing a black; only nine of these had a single black male victim. Over 1,300 executions took place during this period, so 17 executions is a very low number in that context.

Blacks, especially young black men, suffer homicide, violence, and other forms of victimization at rates 20 times greater than many other groups in America. But when it comes to the criminal justice system, they are seen as perpetrators from whom others must be protected, not victims who themselves need protection. This is a crisis of massive proportions as it leads to distrust, alienation, and frustration. The ugly statistics I lay out here also make clear that the death penalty, for all its other characteristics, is used if not designed as a symbol of protection for a group which is statistically the least likely to need it and as a reminder to those who may need protection the most that their lives simply don’t matter. Such is the tragedy and the travesty of the death penalty in our country.

Frank R. Baumgartner is the Richard J. Richardson Distinguished Professor of Political Science at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He joined the department in 2009 as the first holder of the Richardson professorship. A proud Detroiter, he attended Detroit’s Cass Technical High School and then received all his academic degrees at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (BA 1980; MA 1983, PhD 1986).

He currently serves on the editorial boards of the Journal of Public Policy, Public Administration, Policy Studies Journal, Political Research Quarterly, the Journal of European Public Policy, Gouvernement et Action Publique, and other journals. His work focuses on public policy, agenda-setting, and interest groups in American and comparative politics and has appeared in such journals as the American Political Science Review, American Journal of Political Science, the Journal of Politics, Comparative Politics, the Journal of European Public Policy, and Legislative Studies Quarterly.

The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty has created the 90 Million Strong Campaign to unite the voices of those who believe the death penalty is wrong. We need to demonstrate that the broad public support to end this practice is already here in America, and 90 million people speaking up can make a difference.

The 90 million people who oppose the death penalty are organized, energized, and ready to end capital punishment. Join us today.


Author: Press Team

We mobilize and engage the millions of Americans who oppose the death penalty to bring about an end to the practice once and for all. Contact us at

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