* Communications Director for the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty
* Formerly associated with People for the American Way
David Elliot is the Communications Director for the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP), which was established in 1976 as the first “fully staffed national organization exclusively devoted to abolishing capital punishment.”
Mr. Elliot is a former staff writer with the Austin American-Statesman. He has also worked on the communications crews of People for the American Way and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. He condemns what he calls “the innate inequality of the death penalty in the United States, a system that is racist and is anti-poor.” “There are many reasons to oppose capital punishment,” adds Elliott.” “One reason is that we are sending innocent people to death row to await execution. Another reason is that statistics increasingly are pointing to racial disparity, not just among those who are sentenced to death, but also among those who are sentenced to death but are factually innocent of the crime for which they were convicted.”
Elliot’s assertion that the death penalty is applied in a racially discriminatory manner (favoring whites over blacks) wilts under careful scrutiny. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, whites who are arrested for murder or non-negligent manslaughter are actually more likely than their black counterparts to be sentenced to death (1.6 percent vs. 1.2 percent). Of those inmates under death sentences, whites are actually likelier than blacks to have their sentences carried out (7.2 percent vs. 5.9 percent). These disparities are not huge, and the purpose here is not to suggest that they indicate bias against whites; the point is that in no way do they support the notion of bias against blacks. In their 1997 book America in Black and White, Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom point out that “black offenders over the past generation have not been sentenced to death at a higher rate than white offenders. No careful scholarly study in recent years has demonstrated that the race of the defendant has played a significant role in the outcome of murder trials.”
The Thernstroms also note that while fully 58 percent of prisoners currently serving sentences for murder are black, only 40 percent of inmates on death row are black; that is, relative to the rate at which black offenders commit murder, they are sentenced to death in disproportionately low numbers. Finally, if courts were unfairly imposing the death penalty against black defendants who deserved greater leniency, we would expect to find that blacks on death row have cleaner criminal records than their white counterparts. But in fact, the exact opposite is true. Blacks awaiting execution are 10 percent likelier to have had felony convictions, and 20 percent likelier to have had homicide convictions, prior to the crimes that propelled them to death row.