Updated: Dec 5, 2022
By Rebecca Bocchinfuso – Director of Amicus
The Amicus Pro Bono Project at the University of Leicester works to both raise awareness of the unconstitutionality of the death penalty as well as actively participate in research into the disproportionate application of the death penalty. This year, our researchers are participating in looking into cases from Missouri, as this is one of the more active states in terms of capital punishment. The team looks at homicides that could be given a death penalty, and ones that actually are given a death penalty. Since it is up to the prosecution to decide, there is room for much discrepancy. Our teams look at what the jury hears and what they decide whether it be a life sentence or the death penalty.
The issue of the death penalty is inseparable from the issue of race. Dating back to times of slavery, the modern society which is based on capitalism is rooted in slavery times. Looking back to the 18th century, between 1883 and 1940, lynching took place in the same states in the US where there were executions of black defendants between 1972 and 2020. As such, it is clear that historical racism is manifested in the form of the death penalty in contemporary society.
The odds are stacked against black Defendants in the American courts, as the American courts facilitate the process of jury selection. This means that prior to being accepted on to the jury panel for a case, a voir dire is held wherein the attorneys ask the potential jurors questions to determine whether or not to exclude them from the jury. The attorneys are permitted to exclude a certain number of potential jurors from the jury without giving any reason. It is clear why this amounts to a problem when it comes to fairness, as prosecutors can exclude black potential jurors that they may think would be sympathetic to the black defendant’s case. The use of a jury is to ensure that one’s actions are assessed by society, the defendant’s peers in a democratic and unbiased manner. In a prosecutor being able to exclude jurors without rhyme or reason, it undermines the very purpose of using the jury in the name of democracy and paves the way for a manufactured, biased decision to be taken.
The importance of questioning systems that have been in place for generations cannot be overstated. It does not follow that a system is correct because it has been in use for a long period of time. If we become indoctrinated with the complacent belief that “it's just the way things are”, it hinders the advancement of society. In asking the important questions, and really appreciating why these systems are in place and what their subsequent effect is, we are contributing to the progression and improvement of our communities and systems.
 ‘Enduring Injustice: The Persistence of Racial Discrimination in the U.S. Death Penalty’ (Death Penalty Information Center,15 September 2020) <https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/facts-and-research/dpic-reports/in-depth/enduring-injustice-the-persistence-of-racial-discrimination-in-the-u-s-death-penalty> Accessed 10 November 2022.  ‘Learn about Jury Service’ (United States Courts, n.d.) <https://www.uscourts.gov/services-forms/jury-service/learn-about-jury-service#:~:text=Juror%20Selection,to%20serve%20on%20a%20jury.> Accessed 10 November 2022.  M. Dunken-Dyer, ‘Why is Jury Service Important to our Democracy? Does it Promote Civil Participation?’ (Historical Society of the New York Courts, 2016) <https://history.nycourts.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/Academic_Garfinkel-2016_Mavis-Duncan-Dyer-Essay.pdf> Accessed 10 November 2022.