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Leaders In Law recently hosted a webinar entitled The Death Penalty: Past, Present, and Future with Ngozi Ndukue, Senior Director of Research and Special Projects at the Death Penalty Information Center, and Judge Russell Canan, former Presiding Judge of the DC Superior Court and author of Pursuing the Horizon: Stories of Justice. 

Judge Canan began the presentation with a look back at the history of the death penalty in the United States. The first person known to have been executed in what would become the United States was George Kendall, a man who had been convicted of spying for Spain. The first woman was executed in the 1640s for killing a child. In all, there have been about 15,000 legal executions in the United States. That doesn’t include lynchings and the use of the death penalty against enslaved people. Estimates are that between 4,000 and 13,000 lynchings took place between 1877 and the 1950s. 

The framers of the Constitution assumed that the death penalty was part of our society according to Judge Canan. And executions continued through most of US history except for a brief period from 1965 to 1972. Judge Canan pointed out that under the law all defendants are entitled to state-funded representation at trial and until direct appeal. But after that direct appeal, “there are no lawyers to be had.” In the 1980s, Judge Canan worked with the Southern Center for Human Rights where he and other young lawyers helped death row inmates in Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, and Georgia appeal their sentences. Judge Canan remembers the work as often very fulfilling while at times devastating. 

Ms. Ndukue followed with a view of the death penalty today and going forward. She began by highlighting the role of race in the death penalty from the beginning. Last year DPIC published a report entitled Enduring Justice: The Persistence of Racial Discrimination in the U.S. Death penalty. Ms. Ndukue said throughout American history the death penalty has been used as an instrument of social control against those considered outsiders in American society. 

While the use of the death penalty has declined significantly in the past decade, Ms. Ndukue says race is still central to the application of the death penalty today. If the victim is White, the crime is much more likely to, first of all, be solved. But it is also much more likely to become a death penalty case. African American defendants are much more likely to face execution than Whites according to the DPIC research. Conversely, in all of American history, 21 Whites have been executed for killing people of color. 

Ms. Ndukue says that attitudes about the death penalty are changing in the United States. There are no credible studies that point to it as an effective crime deterrent. She also says that people are aware that the death penalty winds up costing the state more than a life sentence. And it continues to be a punishment that is carried out less frequently. For the past five years, there have been fewer than 30 executions annually. States like Virginia have abolished it. Other states that still have the death penalty on their books simply don’t carry out executions.