When it comes to the Death Penalty

"Philadephia has become Mississippi 1954"

Revolutionary Worker #1050, April 16, 2000

"Philadelphia has become Mississippi in 1954." These were the words of Caroline Roberto, president of Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, at a recent state hearing on the death penalty.

Strong words, you might think. A bit of an exaggeration, you might say, just to make a point.

Think again. In a country where the application of the death penalty is saturated with both racism and class oppression, Pennsylvania--and Philadelphia in particular--stands out.

To start with, Pennsylvania has the fourth largest death row in the U.S. Compared to the three states "ahead" of it--Texas, California and Florida--Pennsylvania has the highest percentage of Black prisoners on death row. 63% of Pennsylvania's death row prisoners are Black, much more than the other three states. And this is not just because these other states have sentenced more Latinos to death--Pennsylvania also has a lower percentage of white people on death row than any of these states.

But what about the states of the old South? Surely, you would guess, these states must be much more racist than Pennsylvania.

Guess again. Pennsylvania has a higher percentage of Black people on death row than Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and, yes, Mississippi. Moreover, each of these states has a much higher percentage of Black people in their overall population, so proportionately Pennsylvania is even more racist than the raw figures let on. In fact, the only state in the whole nation with a higher percentage of Black people on death row is Louisiana.

But let's break down those statistics from Pennsylvania a little more. 129 people from Philadelphia sit on Pennsylvania's death rows. That's 56% of the state's death sentences coming from a city that makes up only 12.5% of the population. For purposes of comparison, if you take Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh is located and which is roughly the same size as Philly, you find only nine people on death row.

And who goes to death row from Philadelphia? 90% are people who were too poor to hire a lawyer. And nearly 90% were minority!

90%. Say the number again: 90%. Now imagine ten people standing in a line to the gallows. Then imagine that nine of them are Black. Yet Deputy District Attorney Ronald Eisenberg can say that his office "prosecute[s] crime in a color-blind fashion." Right.

Philadelphia may not fly a confederate flag. Philadelphia may even have a Black mayor. It may use lethal injection instead of the lyncher's rope. But when it comes to the racist administration of justice, Philadelphia in the year 2000 truly merits the comparison to 1954 Mississippi.

NOTE: Statistics obtained from websites of National Coalition Against the Death Penalty, Death Penalty Information Center, and Philadelphia Inquirer.

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