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Who's Waiting On Death Row?

Holding cells at a former prison.
Holding cells at a former prison.

News of Tuesday's botched execution in Oklahoma got us thinking more generally about who is in prison and who is facing the death penalty.

Here are some figures that may surprise you:


"Black men were more than six times as likely as white men in 2010 to be incarcerated in federal and state prisons, and local jails" according to a Pew Research Center report issued last September. The incarceration rate for black men in 2010 was 4,347 inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents. And for white men, the rate was 678 per 100,000 U.S. residents. (For some historical context, Pew notes that in 1960, black men were five times as likely as white men to be sent to prison.)

41.7 %

At the end of 2011, that was the percentage of death row inmates who were black, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. "The race and sex of inmates under sentence of death has remained relatively unchanged since 2000," Tracy Snell, a statistician for the Bureau of Justice Statistics, wrote in a report from July 2013.

And here's another figure:

13.1 %

That's the percentage of the country's population that's black, from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Also notable, says Richard Deiter who heads the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonpartisan research organization, is that men account for 99 percent of all executions since 1976. That's 1325 inmates of the 1338 executed.

And here is the population who have been sentenced to death, broken down by race.

Of the total 3,139 inmates under sentence of death in 2010 and 2011 — in both federal and state courts — 1,309 were black. And 1,743 were white. The DOJ report found there were 387 Hispanic inmates on death row. That's 14 percent of death row inmates with a "known ethnicity," according to the DOJ. That's less than the percentage of Latinos — 16.9 percent — in the U.S.

So, what's causing these racial disparities?

"You have to look at the race of the victim and that helps explain the death penalty a whole lot better," Deiter says. "If you kill a white person, you're more likely to get a death penalty."

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund looked at the various racial combinations of defendants and victims in execution cases and found that black defendants had killed 270 white victims (20.18 percent of all executions) and 152 black victims (11.36 percent of all executions). The white defendants who were executed killed 696 white victims and 20 black victims.

"You've got a system and mostly that system is affected when they hear about a white victim," Deiter says.

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