Today: Jun 16, 2024

Racial disparities and capital punishment

Diego Vicente, Monica Szakacs, Rebecca Bainer, Robin Glynn
Special to the Southern News
Steven Hayes joins 10 other inmates on death row in Connecticut after being sentenced to death for the Cheshire home invasion murders, according to the Death Penalty Information Center website.

The victims of these murders were wealthy white individuals, which lends support to the statistics: according to the DPIC website, the race of victims in the underlying murder cases where an execution has occurred since 1976 was 77 percent white.
These statistics bring up a question regarding race: Would Steven Hayes have been sentenced to death if he killed a family of a different race?
A comprehensive study of the death penalty conducted by Professor Jack Boger and Dr. Isaac Unah from the University of North Carolina in 2001 found that the odds of receiving a death sentence rose by 3.5 times among those defendants whose victims were white.

John A. Connelly, Waterbury judicial district state’s attorney, said the severity of a crime is the most important thing to consider, not the race of the defendant or victims.

“As long as the death penalty is on the books in Connecticut and I have a case that fits the death penalty statue,” said Connelly, “I believe I have an obligation to pursue it.”

According to the DPIC website, a study conducted in California by Glenn Pierce and Michael Radelet and the Santa Clara Law Review in 2005 found that those who killed whites were over three times more likely to be sentenced to death than those who killed blacks, and over four times more likely than those who killed Latinos.

“There is an issue here in Connecticut pending at this time regarding the racial disparity. There is a habeas corpus that’s been going on for the last six or seven years,” said Connelly. “I think if you look at the people on death row here in Connecticut, they are not all minorities and the people that they killed are not all white people, so I don’t think you can show that here in Connecticut.”

According to the DPIC website, 56 percent of defendants executed in the U.S. since 1976 are white and 35 percent are black. Compared to the whole population, which is 80 percent white in a recent U.S. Census Bureau statistic, the execution rate is not that high. Black people are being executed at a rate of three times their population, which was listed as 13 percent in the statistic.

According to a study conducted by Pierce and Radelet, in California, race and ethnicity of the victim as well as place and community diversity are main factors in determining who is sentenced to die.

Connelly said a lot of times the news media has the biggest influence on what kind of attention a case gets, regardless of the race of the defendants and the victims.

“It’s the news media’s job regarding whether a crime will be sensationalized,” said Connelly. “The courts don’t have any control over the news media.”

The Cornell Law Review posted statistics in 1998 that 98 percent of the chief district attorneys in death penalty states are white and only 15 percent are black.

Connelly said in most states, with the exception of New Jersey and Connecticut, the district attorneys that have prosecutors are elected and the lack of minorities may have to do with the election or the salary.

“Maybe it’s because of the salaries,” said Connelly. “A lot of times, for better terms, the lack of minority attorneys may be because they go into private practices where it’s more lucrative than working for the government. I know here in Connecticut there are 13 state attorneys and one is an African-American female.”

In Connelly’s case, he has prosecuted six men with the death penalty, three of whom were white, two were black and one was Hispanic.

One of these men was Robert Courchesne, a white man who murdered a pregnant black woman. The baby was born but died 42 days later due to lack of oxygen. This non-sensationalized case lends supports to the fact that the severity of the crime trumps the race of the victims.

A report to the American Bar Association in 1998 from David Baldus, law professor at the University of Iowa, said in 96 percent of the states where there have been reviews of race and the death penalty, there was a pattern of either race-of-victim or race-of-defendant discrimination, or both.

Rafael Fonseca, 21, of New Britain spent four months in Hartford Correctional Center for possession of narcotics and said he faced racism while in prison.

“Puerto Ricans stay with Puerto Ricans, and blacks stay with the blacks,” said Fonseca. “You would either stay with your group or you mind your own. I had a couple friends in there that I chilled with.”

Fonseca said he didn’t get into any fights while in jail although they did occur.

“You could get in a fight,” said Fonseca, “if you did something as simple as drop someone’s toothbrush.”

Fonseca said if the victims of the Cheshire home invasion were of a different race the case wouldn’t have gotten as much coverage.

Fonseca said he does agree that with regards to the death penalty, the punishment must fit the crime, but that more often than not, a killer should be kept alive so that he can live with the guilt of taking someone’s life.

Ivo Colon, another one of the men Connelly prosecuted with the death penalty, will be doing just that— spending his life in prison. According to Connelly, Colon murdered a 2-year-old girl and was sentenced to death in 2000, but the ruling was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2004. Connelly said Colon eventually got a plea bargain of two life sentences.

Fonseca said he thinks Steven Hayes should suffer a similar fate as Colon, instead of being put to death.

“Steven Hayes, he should rot in jail,” said Fonseca. “He should be forced to watch video clips of what he did. You have to live with it if you take someone else’s life, not take the easy way out and get killed.”

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