Matthew T. Mangino
August 25, 2017
Yesterday at 6:22 p.m., at the State Prison in Starke, Florida the state Department of Corrections carried out its first execution in 19 months. Florida has executed 93 people since the death penalty was reinstated in 1979. Only three states — Texas, Virginia and Oklahoma — have executed more killers in the modern era of the death penalty.
There was another first when Mark James Asay was executed yesterday. A database maintained by the Death Penalty Information Center, a non-profit opposed to the death penalty, noted that Asay was the first white man executed for killing a black victim in Florida in more than 50 years.
Nationally, the racial pattern of death sentences, while not as extreme as Florida, leans sharply the same way, according to the Washington Post. Nationwide since 1976, 20 whites have been executed for murdering blacks, while 288 blacks have been executed for killing whites.
Asay, who is white, fatally shot Robert Lee Booker, a black man, after making multiple racist comments, prosecutors said. Asay’s second victim was Robert McDowell, who was mixed race, white and Hispanic. Prosecutors say Asay had hired McDowell, who was dressed as a woman, for sex and shot him six times after discovering his gender.
The vast majority of killings of whites are committed by other whites, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, and the overwhelming majority of killings of blacks are by other blacks. However, killings of black males by white people are labeled justifiable much more often than other killings.
When a white person kills a black man in America, the killer often faces no legal consequences. In one in six of these killings, there is no criminal sanction, according to a new Marshall Project analysis of 400,000 homicides committed between 1980 and 2014. That rate is far higher than the one for homicides involving other combinations of races.
In almost 17 percent of cases when a black man was killed by a white person over the last three decades, the killing was categorized as justifiable, which is the term used when a police officer or a civilian kills someone committing a crime or in self-defense. Overall, the police classify fewer than 2 percent of homicides committed by civilians as justifiable.
The disparity persists across different cities, different ages, different weapons and different relationships between killer and victim.
For example, in Houston overall three percent of homicides were determined to be justified. The justification rate soars to 37 percent when a white person kills a black person; in Los Angeles, the overall justification rate is 2 percent — 25 percent when a white kills a black; in Philadelphia, overall three percent — 23 percent when a white person kills a black person.
The Marshall Project acknowledges the problem may not be explained solely by racism. The report points to a 2013 study of justifiable homicide by the Urban Institute. The researcher, John Roman wrote, “If, for instance, white-on-black homicides were mainly defensive shootings in a residence or business, and black-on-white shootings mainly occurred during the commission of a street crime, then the (racial) disparity would be warranted.”
If the racial disparities only existed in the context of justifiable homicide then Roman’s explanation might be worth considering. However, as is painfully obvious in Florida, racial disparities exist with regard to the death penalty. Not to mention, that black people, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, are nearly six times as likely to be incarcerated as white people.
Yesterday’s execution is a painful reminder that racial problems in this country go far beyond white supremacists and confederate monuments.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.
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