April 22nd, 1987

United States Supreme Court Upholds Death Penalty Despite "Inevitable" Racial Bias

In October 1978, Warren McCleskey, a black man, was condemned to die for killing a white police officer during a robbery. On appeal, Mr. McCleskey argued that Georgia's capital punishment system was racially biased in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. In support of his argument, Mr. McCleskey presented statistical evidence that race significantly impacted the likelihood of a death sentence.

Mr. McCleskey relied on a study by University of Iowa professor David Baldus, who conducted a rigorous statistical analysis of more than 2000 Georgia murder cases and found that prosecutors were more likely to seek the death penalty and juries were more likely to impose it in cases involving black defendants and white victims. Even after controlling for crime-specific variables, the Baldus study concluded black defendants accused of killing white victims faced the highest likelihood of receiving the death penalty.

On April 22, 1987, the United States Supreme Court upheld Mr. McCleskey's capital conviction in a 5-4 decision that accepted these racial sentencing disparities as "an inevitable part of our criminal justice system." The Court accepted Baldus's findings as valid but held the evidence insufficient to warrant reversal because there was no proof that any individual had intentionally discriminated against Mr. McCleskey on the basis of race. In dissent, Justice William Brennan wrote that the majority was motivated to deny relief by a "fear of too much justice."

McCleskey v. Kemp upheld the constitutionality of racially biased capital punishment in America and remains the law today. The United States has executed more than 1200 people since 1987, including Warren McCleskey, who died in the electric chair on September 26, 1991.