Study: Racial disparities taint military's use of death penalty

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 28, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Ten of the 16 men whom the military has sentenced to death in the last 27 years share another common characteristic: They're all minorities.

The racial imbalance in the military's death penalty isn't new. As far back as the early 1970s, the military has acknowledged racial bias in its judicial system. The civilian court systems have similar disparities.

But one recent statistical analysis has found that the problem endures and is in some ways worse than on the civilian side.

A study by a group of law and statistics professors found that minorities in the military were twice as likely to be sentenced to death as their white counterparts, a statistic higher than is known to exist in most civilian court systems.

The professors concluded that the military's efforts in 1984 to reform its capital system "failed to purge the risk of racial prejudice from the administration of the death penalty."

"There is no suggestion here that any participant in the military criminal justice system consciously and knowingly discriminated on the basis of the race of the accused or the victim," the study's authors said in their report. "However, there is substantial evidence that many actors in the American criminal justice system are unconsciously influenced by the race of defendants and their victims."

The study, led by professor David Baldus of the University of Iowa College of Law and associate professor Catherine Grosso of the Michigan State University College of Law, was obtained by McClatchy and is set to be published late this year in the peer-reviewed Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology.

Of the 16 death sentences the military has handed down since 1984, the study found that race appeared especially to be a factor in five cases that involved multiple victims with at least one victim who was white.

The cases included three men who remain on death row.

  • Ronald Gray, a black former Army private who raped and murdered four women, is expected to be the first military execution in 50 years.

  • Dwight Loving, a black former Army private at Fort Hood, Texas, was convicted of killing two taxi drivers.
  • Kenneth Parker, a black former Marine lance corporal, killed two white Marines after hearing rumors that a group of white males planned a lynching.

The other two men were resentenced to life in prison after appeals courts overturned their death sentences.

Other legal experts have asserted that civilian jurors and prosecutors are more likely to weigh race in their decision-making in civilian capital cases when the crime involves multiple victims who are white. The more heinous the crime, the more likely there will be racial bias, the theory goes.

In the military, the professors found that base commanders, who decide whether to seek the death penalty, are less influenced by race than juries are.

The authors said they thought that the officers, who were trained and advised by a legal adviser in a profession that prided itself on "race-neutral decision-making," were more likely to resist racial considerations.

In contrast, military juries "are on their own in their decision-making and normally have had no reason to consider issues of equal justice."

The study found no evidence of racial disparity in cases that involved a significant military interest, such as the murders of fellow troops or officers. In murders of civilians who had little ties to the military, the disparities were the most noticeable.

The professors theorized that military juries were able to rise above racially charged decision-making when the military's interests were at stake.

To discourage racism from entering into verdicts, the study recommends that the military reserve the death penalty for murders in which there's significant military interest.

"Such a limitation of death eligibility under military law would also simplify the costs and complexity of the current system without impairing the charging and sentencing authorities' ability to protect vital military interests through the use of the death penalty," the authors concluded.

(Tish Wells contributed to this article.)

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