This day in history — April 22, 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.

From the Equal Justice Initiative’s A History of Racial Injustice – 2018 Calendar.

“The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) is proud to present A History of Racial Injustice – 2018 Calendar.  America’s history of racial inequality continues to undermine fair treatment, equal justice, and opportunity for many Americans.  The genocide of Native people, the legacy of slavery and racial terror, and the legally supported abuse of racial minorities are not well understood.  EJI believes that a deeper engagement with our nation’s history of racial injustice is important to addressing present-day questions of social justice and equality.


About William Eric Waters, aka Easy Waters

Award-winning poet, playwright and writer. Author of three books of poetry, "Black Shadows and Through the White Looking Glass: Remembrance of Things Past and Present"; "Sometimes Blue Knights Wear Black Hats"; "The Black Feminine Mystique," and a novel, "Streets of Rage." All four books are available on
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