LA Times Editorial Board: Racism Not Death Penalty’s Only Flaw 

Via Pix4free

By Shaolien Chen-Graf 

LOS ANGELES, CA – The California death penalty, in practice, is racist—but it’s much more than that, according to an editorial this week published by the Los Angeles Times editorial board, addressing recent petitions citing racism in California death sentences.

More specifically, the editorial board highlighted how within the past month civil rights organizations and defense attorneys are asking the State of California to invalidate the death penalty because it’s “irredeemably racist.”

While the editorial completely agrees with this claim, it argues the claim is an obvious one, stating “of course it is. Evidence and experience show racial bias at play at every level of the criminal justice system, from arrest to jury selection to verdict.”

The editorial then explains how these racial disparities are even worse when it comes to death sentences, noting, “Black (accused) were 4.6 to 8.7 times more likely to be sentenced to death than other (accused) facing similar charges” while “Latinos were 3.2 to 6.2 times more likely to be sentenced to death.”

Again, the LA Times board argues that while there is plenty of evidence to document this disparity in capital punishment sentencing, it should also be intuitive considering the “years of evidence showing Black and Latino people being arrested more often and sentenced to longer prison terms than white people for the same crime.” 

According to the editorial board, “It stands to reason that the same biases would show up in death sentences.” 

The LA Times editorial board adds that while “the Supreme Court petition contains voluminous data regarding racial bias in California’s capital punishment system” all of this is in some ways beside the point.

“Even if the state could perform painless and anxiety-free executions and racial biases were eliminated, the death penalty would still be wrong,” writes the LA Times editorial board.

The editorial outlines a multitude of issues with the death penalty. First, the editorial board argues there is no justification for capital punishment, which in the hands of the government is essentially “carefully planned and premeditated state homicide.”

Next, the writers explain how the death penalty is often applied arbitrarily and is distinctly political. The editorial board uses the statements and actions of former President Trump as an example, highlighting the contradiction between advocating for the death penalty for drug dealers in 2018 and then pardoning “convicted drug dealer Alice Johnson in 2020 after her cause was taken up by Kim Kardashian.”

Also put under scrutiny is current President Joe Biden, who according to the editorial, “promised to end capital punishment in federal cases but whose Justice Department nevertheless continues to seek death sentences.”

In addition to giving the government too much power, and being applied inconsistently, the LA Times editorial board asserts the death penalty is wrong because juries are not qualified “to weigh non-tangibles such as moral worth, or to choose between life or death without improper emotional considerations.”

According to the board, the fact jurors are asked to do so is “morally unconscionable” especially considering that sometimes death sentence convictions are made in error.

“Seven Californians sentenced to death since 1973 were later exonerated. The Death Penalty Information Center names 20 people put to death in Southern and border states since 1989 who may well have been innocent,” wrote the Times.

The editorial board said it is not only concerned with how and when the death penalty is applied.

“The death penalty is wrong even when it is not imposed, because prosecutors use the mere possibility of execution to pressure defendants into pleading guilty and accepting life sentences—even if they are innocent,” writes the editorial board.

Another example of prosecutorial overreach highlighted by the board is “death qualifying” jurors—a practice in which prosecutors exclude anyone who may have reservations about execution from sitting on the jury.

The LA Times editorial board explains the biased results of this practice, “even if a death-qualified jury instead chooses life in prison, the same qualities that made jurors open to a death sentence may also have made them more likely to convict.”

After outlining the serious flaws attached to the death penalty, the Times acknowledges Americans who favor capital punishment usually want it to be imposed without error, pain, politics, or racial bias.

However, the LA Times editorial board identifies this as mere fantasy, writing “the death penalty is inextricably bound up with each of those ills, and more.”

Commenting on California Governor Gavin Newsom’s promise “that no one would be put to death on his watch,” the editorial board points to the death penalty’s continued prevalence in California.

“Capital punishment remains on the books in California, and district attorneys continue to use it to unjustly wring guilty pleas from defendants, or to toughen juries by death-qualifying them,” states the Times.

In closing, the LA Times editorial board once again affirms those petitioners citing racism in California death sentences and credits them for identifying an angle they deem “righteous” and potentially effective.

However, the editorial board expresses disappointment that it was even necessary for them to do so, writing that “the death penalty is morally repugnant and manifestly unjust, even without the long and ample record of racism in its application.”

About The Author

Shaolien Chen-Graf is a fourth-year student at the University of California, Santa Barbara studying Sociology and minoring in Professional Writing. With hopes of pursuing a career as a writer for issues of social justice or simply within the NGO sector she is excited to hone her skills as a reporter and journalist. She currently advocates for reproductive justice as the Outreach Coordinator for Students for Reproductive Justice at UCSB, and promotes access to higher education through her role as a financial specialist for a nonprofit organization called CalSOAP. Shaolien is excited for the opportunity to witness the court system inaction and to draw attention to everyday injustices that are infringing on people's rights. In her free time she enjoys being out in nature, spending time with loved ones, and birdwatching.

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