Statistics often mask the human realities they represent, so I invite you to take time to reflect on the people behind each of the statistics below.
Of the 241 people that Louisiana has sentenced to death in the past 30 years:
- 28 (12%) have been executed;
- 127 (53%) have had their sentences reversed due to serious errors;
- 9 (4%) have been exonerated.
That means one person has been exonerated for every three executed.
Let's add a few more Louisiana stats to this list:
- Those who kill white people are 10 times more likely to get the death penalty than those who kill black people.
- If a black man is tried for killing a white woman he is 30 times more likely to get a death sentence than if the victim is a black man.
- No white person has been sentenced to death for a crime against a black person since 1752. And in that case, the crime was essentially a "property" crime against another white man: it involved the non-fatal stabbing of two black female slaves. (By the way, my friend Mike Radelet, who made a study of 16,000 executions in US history dating from 1989 back to 1608 found only 30 cases across the entire USA in which a white was executed for killing a black.)
When I think about these statistics, I think about the people they represent. Those nine innocent men who, between them, spent 108 years on death row waiting to die for crimes they did not commit. The 128 who were sent to death row following trials fatally flawed by prosecutorial misconduct or woefully inadequate defense or judges who misdirected their juries. I think of the victims' families who see the death sentence as justice or a chance for healing and who wait and wait for an execution date that almost certainly will never eventuate. And I think of all those who wake up each day knowing the scales of justice are tipped steeply against them because of the color of their skin.
What got me thinking
I was set to thinking about these things by the release of an important new paper released this week, Louisiana Death Sentenced Cases and Their Reversals, 1976-2015
, by Professor Frank Baumgartner and Tim Lyman. This same pair published a paper on racial discrepencies in Louisiana homicide convictions
late last year. Both papers are essential but disturbing reads. As Prof. Baumgartner says, "“We have to look the death penalty in the eye and understand how it truly does function. Not how we wished it functioned but how it really does function. And every time we do that, it really is disturbing.”
Thinking of Manuel
Those statistics also made me think of Manuel Ortiz, who has been sitting on Louisiana's death row for more than 22 years for a crime he did not commit. I have been making the trip to Angola each month for some 15 years or so to visit Manuel. Recently his case has moved into federal court where his lawyers believe he stands a far better chance of finding justice than he has in the Louisiana state courts.
You'll find more about Manuel below. I hope you will take the time to get to know him a little.
An important date
Before I sign off, I ask that you consider a donation to my work with the Ministry Against the Death Penalty. We make a public appeal for donations once a year - that's all!
- and that appeal comes this Tuesday May 3. Read more about it below.
From the heart,