Jena 6

Hopefully, you’ve read about the Jena 6 by now, the six black students in Louisiana who are being prosecuted for attempted murder, unfairly some say. In brief, the story began last year when a young black man asked at his high school assembly whether he could sit under a tree commonly known as a gathering place for white students. The next day, nooses appeared in the tree. A fight broke out culminating with a white student punching out a black student. The white student was charged with simple assault and released. Nobody was charged for the nooses, allegedly there being no law broken. Tensions increased and another fight broke out, culminating in a black student punching out a white student. The result was six black students getting charged with attempted murder. The inconsistency raised the ire of the greater American community and last week over 10,000 people marched in Jena to protest the unfair administration of justice.

How interesting that while this is going on in Louisiana, a study came out indicating that black students are far more likely to get suspended from school than white students for the same offenses:

“In every state but Idaho … black students are being suspended in numbers greater than would be expected from their proportion of the student population. In 21 states—Illinois among them—that disproportionality is so pronounced that the percentage of black suspensions is more than double their percentage of the student body,” reports the Chicago Tribune, based on its own analysis of U.S. Department of Education data from the 2004-2005 school year.

I am much reminded of a pivotal U.S. Supreme Court case, McKlesky v. Kemp, 481 U.S. 279; 107 S. Ct. 1756; 95 L. Ed. 2d 262; 1987 U.S. LEXIS 1817; 55 U.S.L.W. 4537 (1987), which noted the following: “Baldus subjected his data to an extensive analysis, taking account of 230 variables that could have explained the disparities on nonracial grounds. One of his models concludes that, even after taking account of 39 nonracial variables, defendants charged with killing white victims were 4.3 times as likely to receive a death sentence as defendants charged with killing blacks. According to this model, black defendants were 1.1 times as likely to receive a death sentence as other defendants. Thus, the Baldus study indicates that black defendants, such as McCleskey, who kill white victims have the greatest likelihood of receiving the death penalty.” 481 U.S. at 287. The Baldus study  was “a statistical study performed by Professors David C. Baldus, Charles Pulaski, and George Woodworth (the Baldus study) that purports to show a disparity in the imposition of the death sentence in Georgia based on the race of the murder victim and, to a lesser extent, the race of the defendant. The Baldus study is actually two sophisticated statistical studies that examine over 2,000 murder cases that occurred in Georgia during the 1970’s.” 481 U.S. at 286.

Despite the harsh reality of the death penalty system, the case indicated that in order for a defendant to successfully claim his death penalty conviction violated the Equal Protection clause of the Constitution, he would have to, “prove that the decisionmakers in his case acted with discriminatory purpose.” 481 U.S. at 292. Not so easy a task, it turns out.

For information on the death penalty, check out the Death Penalty Information Center’s web page, in particular its FAQ.

Posted by C. Bekhor

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