Starting tomorrow, the geographically and racially arbitrary application of Connecticut’s death penalty will be put on trial in a makeshift courtroom in the state’s only maximum security prison, which, in a twist of unintended irony, is called Northern.
The disparity lawsuit, which I’ve written about for years now, will focus on whether the decision to seek the death penalty in Connecticut courts is influenced by race (duh) and geography (hello, Waterbury). Not surprisingly, this will be a battle of experts: John Donohue, hired by the Office of the Chief Public Defender and some other guy hired by the Office of the Chief State’s Attorney. Here‘s [PDF] the latest version of the study prepared by Donohue and read this prior post for a summary. The New York times created this nifty graphic summarizing the findings of the study:
The trial is also expected to feature the testimony of various State’s Attorneys from across the state as they try to explain their justifications for seeking death in one case as opposed to life in another. There will be mountains of obfuscation and chest-thumping and people will get their backs up, as they are wont to do when their decisions are questioned in the light of racial biases. There will be plenty of explanations provided for choosing one case over the other, perhaps an appeal to the specific emotional tugs of one case or the personal horror of another and lots of indignation and calls to the prosecutors’ sense of duty and justice. And that’s all well and good, but them facts are the facts and it seems that – intentional or otherwise – a systemic bias does exist in this state: you’re more likely to have the death penalty sought against you if your victim is a white female and certainly more so if the crime you commit happens to be within the geographic boundaries of the Judicial District of Waterbury.
No amount of hand-waving or imploring that these are “just good folks conscientiously applying the law” should be allowed to overshadow and hide the fact that the system punishes those whose ethnic status is anything other than “white”.
It is important to remember that a bias need not be explicit: that there need not be an explicit preference for one gender or one race over another. Rather, some biases are insidious and work subconsciously and those, after all, are the most dangerous biases of all.
What this trial is not about, however, is whether the death penalty repeal in Connecticut is to be applied retroactively. That was explicitly rejected by the judge as an additional claim in this lawsuit because goddammit it’s dragged on long enough already or something. Not like that’s probably the most important issue that our courts are going to have to address in the near future or anything. But judicial efficiency and all that.
That the death penalty is sought – and applied – in an arbitrary fashion should really come as no surprise to anyone following this area of jurisprudence with just a little bit of brain power, but will the law – which is always notoriously last in these situations – finally catch up? We’ll find out starting tomorrow.