Precious Lives: Who Lives and Who Dies in America's Contemporary Capital Punishment Complex

173 Pages Posted: 8 Apr 2012

See all articles by Kieran Platt

Kieran Platt

affiliation not provided to SSRN

Date Written: April 7, 2012


In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all existing capital punishment statutes, declaring the death penalty unconstitutional due to its excessive discretion which resulted in its arbitrary and discriminatory application against racial minorities and the poor. The suspension on executions only proved temporary. In 1976, capital punishment was reinstated under the premise that a number of conditions be met. However, despite an abundance of reformed statutes supposedly designed to stamp out racial discrimination, mounting evidence suggests that the system continues to end human lives unfairly. In particular, it has been found that an individual is, on average, three-to-five times more likely to receive a death sentence if their victim is white. Despite ample evidence of the disparities and inconsistencies which recur in the meting out of society’s ultimate punishment, the current literature which dominates academia continues to indulge in old trade-offs which see the death penalty’s efficacy as a deterrent to murder continually debated with minimal regard for social issues. The objectives of this thesis are thus twofold: (1) first, I argue that a paradigm shift is necessary in death penalty rhetoric which moves away from empirically-laden econometric studies towards a sociological approach which is more attuned to the numerous social issues, and in particular the racial disparities, which the modern death penalty in the United States consistently reproduces; secondly (2), the thesis explores the racial disparities which persist in America’s officially ‘colour-blind’ capital punishment system and attempts to provide an historically-grounded explanation which situates such discrepancies in the embodiment of African Americans as ‘inferior’ and whites as ‘superior’ across three systems of racial control, and the influence such developments have exerted on who lives and who dies for death-eligible crimes in twenty-first century America. The paper concludes with the recommendation of declaring a moratorium on all scheduled executions in order to allow social scientists the time to conduct county, state, and nationwide studies which further investigate racial disparities whilst building upon the theoretical foundations laid down in this paper.

Keywords: punishment, death penalty, race, racism, social theory

Suggested Citation

Platt, Kieran, Precious Lives: Who Lives and Who Dies in America's Contemporary Capital Punishment Complex (April 7, 2012). Available at SSRN: or

Kieran Platt (Contact Author)

affiliation not provided to SSRN

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