The Death Penalty Is Racist: Now Is the Perfect Time to Abolish It Once and For All

Jessica S. Henry
7 min readJul 12, 2020


Julius Jones has spent the last 20 years on Oklahoma’s death row for a murder he has always said he didn’t commit.

It’s stories like his that should make us put an end to the death penalty.

In the fall of 1998, Jones was a freshman engineering student at the University of Oklahoma on a presidential scholarship. By the summer of 1999, Jones was in custody for the murder of 45-year-old Paul Howell, a businessman and father shot dead during a carjacking.

Jones claims that he was home with his family at the time of the shooting, but he was implicated by Christopher Jordan, Jones’ high school basketball teammate. Although Jordan changed his story no less than six times, he became the star witness in the case against Jones. Ladell King, a habitual offender who was facing life in prison for check fraud, also testified to Jones involvement.

Jones believes Jordan and King framed him to save themselves. If that’s what happened, it worked. Jordan served fifteen years and King ten before they were both released from prison. Jones, on the other hand, was convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

Classic Case of Innocence

Jones’ trial was riddled by racism. The arresting police officer allegedly called Jones a n****, the prosecutor excluded blacks from the jury, and a juror who was an active member of the jury said aloud that they should “just take the n**** and shoot him behind the jail.”

It wasn’t just racism that landed Jones on death row. His court-appointed lawyers never presented his alibi defense — or any defense witnesses at all.

At the time of Jones’ trial, the prosecutor was responsible for putting more people on death row — a total of 54 — than anyone in the state. He later resigned in disgrace when it was discovered that a forensic scientist faked evidence in a different case. Prosecutorial misconduct was later found to be present in nearly one-third of those 54 death cases; more than half of those convictions have since been vacated, including three people who were exonerated.

Jones’s case has all the classic hallmarks of a wrongful conviction: police and prosecutorial misconduct, witnesses who testified after receiving sweetheart deals, and bad lawyering. According to the National Academy of Sciences, 4.1 percent of defendants who are sentenced to death are innocent.

Since 1973, 169 people who were formerly on death-row have been proven innocent and exonerated of all charges. Maybe Jones will be one of the lucky ones. Jones has been featured in Viola Davis’ docuseries Justice for Julius. Kim Kardashian has joined his cause. Blake Griffin, Russell Westbrook and other NBA stars have taken up his case. A clemency petition is pending before the Governor of Oklahoma, and public pressure is mounting for Jones to be freed.

Julius Jones and Kim Kardashian|The Black Wall Street Times

Unfortunately, however, not every case of innocence is resolved by an exoneration. In the modern death penalty era, 18 people have been executed despite strong evidence of innocence. If Jones is executed, he can be added to that ignominious list.

The risk of executing an innocent person is a highly compelling reason to abolish the death penalty. To put it bluntly, you can’t bring an innocent person back from the dead.

But the specter of innocence is only one reason to abolish capital punishment.

Like much of the ills within the criminal justice system that are finally being brought to light, the death penalty is just wrong. It is racist in its application and its impact. It is arbitrary, resting more on geography and politics than on the crime committed. And it is costly, consuming scarce resources that could be used to prevent crime in the first place.

The Death Penalty is Racist

The death penalty is racist. It is racist today. It was racist in the past. It will always be laden with racism.

Slave codes dating back to the Colonial era were explicit about executing black slaves for a whole host of behaviors that were lawful if committed by whites. Still later, in the years leading up to the Reconstruction era, state laws were clear about their racist intentions. In Virginia, for instance, seventy-two crimes when committed by a black person were punishable by death; only two of which, if committed by a white man, were death-eligible.

When the death penalty was permitted as a punishment for rape before 1978, 89 percent of executions were of black men, often for the alleged rape of white women.

The racism of the death penalty continues today.

Prosecutors decide whether to bring capital charges in murder cases, and they do so in ways that overvalue white lives and undervalue black lives. Seventy-five percent of death penalty cases involve the murder of white victims, even though the murder rate among white and blacks is nearly equal. Julius Jones is black, the murder victim in his case is white. In murders with black victims, the death penalty is far less likely to be used.

Beyond the initial charging decision, death penalty trials are notorious for racial biases. Prosecutors routinely exclude potential black jurors from capital trials involving black defendants. Judges have been known to use racist slurs in capital cases.

Defense lawyers assigned to poor black defendants often provide inadequate representation. Kenneth Fults was executed in Georgia in 2016 after being represented by a lawyer who referred to a different black client as a “little n**** who deserves the chair.” That same lawyer slept through parts of Fults’ trial.

In a civilized society — one that prides itself of the rule of law — race should never be a factor in determining who lives and who dies. Yet, history and contemporary practices reveal that racism plays a huge role in who is sentenced to death and who is not.

The Death Penalty is Far More About Geography than the Crime

Throughout the country, states have been moving away from the death penalty. Twenty-two states have abolished capital punishment altogether, while many states who retain capital punishment on its books have not executed anyone in recent years. The number of new death penalty cases is at an all-time low. And public support for the death penalty is on the decline.

But here’s the truth.

The states that continue to embrace the death penalty are often the same states with ugly histories of racism. Since 1976, the South is responsible for more than 80 percent of all executions. More than one-third of all executions took place in Texas, whose just executed Billy Wardlow last week

It’s not the “worst of the worst” who are sentenced to death. It’s those who are convicted of murder in one of the few states that still uses the death penalty.

The Death Penalty Should Not Be About Politics

While the states’ use of the death penalty is on a dramatic decline, the federal government is suddenly leaning in. Although no federal executions have been carried out since 2003, Attorney General William Barr has scheduled four federal executions for this summer — including three that were set to take place within a five-day period which was supposed to start on Monday, July 13th.

Even the Federal Department of Corrections objected to this jam-packed schedule. But no matter. It’s an election year — and just weeks before the Republic Convention — for a president who is trying to position himself as a “law and order” leader.

Trump has always been a staunch death penalty advocate. In 1989, he took out a full-page ad in The New York Times calling for the death penalty against five black teenagers arrested for the violent rape and assault of a jogger in Central Park. The Central Park 5, as they came to be called, were proven innocent and eventually exonerated. When later asked whether he was sorry for taking such a strong stand against these innocent young men, Trump stood firm and unapologetic.

Life and death decisions should not be a matter of political expediency or the fact that it’s an election year. But that’s really the only way to explain the federal government’s abrupt rush to executions for the first time in nearly two decades.

Use the Money for the Death Penalty Elsewhere

The death penalty is expensive. Really expensive. In Oklahoma, where Jones is on death row, capital cases cost 3.2 times more than non-capital cases. In California, a 2011 study found the death penalty had cost over $4 billion dollars since 1978; that number has continued to rise.

Just as in the national conversation about police and funding, tax-payer dollars squandered on capital punishment could go toward other public programs like compensating victim families, improving indigent defense funding, or other criminal justice reform projects. Or the money could simply go back to state coffers where it could be used to increase funding for education, social services and infrastructure projects.

The Time is Now

Never in our history has there been a such a reckoning with the racism in our criminal justice system. The death penalty is racist, arbitrary, expensive and runs the risk of harming the innocent. Let’s seize the moment to abolish the death penalty and end a punishment so deeply rooted in racial oppression.



Jessica S. Henry

Criminal Justice Reform/Prof/Fmr public defender. Blog@ au:Smoke but No Fire: Convicting the Innocent of Crimes that Never Happened