09/23/2011 04:06 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

On Race, the Death Penalty, and Troy Davis

Consider the following scenario: Just hours before his scheduled execution by lethal injection, a prisoner on death row gets a call that the Board of Pardons and Parole has commuted his sentence to life in prison. The man had been convicted by a jury for murdering the manager at a local lumber company, apparently in a dispute over a loan that the victim had agreed to but later changed his mind about.

The murder was a "gruesome" one. The victim had been dragged and beaten until his face was mutilated; eventually, he shot in the back of the head. But the defendant seemed genuinely remorseful about the crime he now admitted to and had turned his life around since going to prison, kicking his own drug habit and working with other prisoners to battle their addictions.

A decision like this one, to commute a defendant's death sentence, raises all sorts of challenging questions and debates surrounding the objectives (and future) of capital punishment. Certainly, for those who oppose the death penalty, it would be a decision to celebrate. But here's what so jarring about this decision: it was made in 2008 by the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles -- the very same body that this week declined to commute the death sentence of Troy Davis, who was executed 24 hours ago for the murder of a police officer in 1989.

That's right, just three years ago, the Board decided to spare the life of Samuel David Crowe, who admitted to committing the heinous premeditated murder described above. And then this week they decided against doing the same for Davis, who has always maintained his innocence and -- as has been well-documented -- was convicted not on the basis of physical or even circumstantial evidence, but rather because of suspect (and, in many cases, later retracted) eyewitness identifications.

Of course, there are various differences between the cases of these two men. For one, Crowe, who escaped the death penalty, did not kill a police officer, as Davis was convicted of doing. Moreover, Crowe was remorseful whereas Davis was clearly not, given that he never admitted to the crime.

But it's hard to escape the notion that the most salient difference between the cases is that Crowe is a White man and Davis is Black. And study after study of capital trials across jurisdictions --including Georgia -- have demonstrated that race matters when it comes to the death penalty. Even controlling for dozens of non-racial differences between cases, compared to other defendants, Black defendants charged with killing White victims are dramatically more likely to be sentenced to death.

I know that some people reading this will be furious at the suggestion that race could have mattered in a matter of life and death like this -- the facts are what they are, some might say. Certainly the Board can be depended on to have had legitimate reasons to see the two cases differently, right?

But this is what all too many people do when plausible allegations of racial bias come up. They'll admit that racism still exists, yet automatically hold fast to the argument that it couldn't have happened in the particular instance, even in the face of evidence that suggests there's a real discussion to be had.

It's as if many Americans are able to recognize racial bias in the abstract, but never willing to see it in the here and now: Hypothetically? Racism is still a problem. Practically? It didn't happen this time. And so they end up clinging to the belief that it's never about race.

Can I sit here at my computer, conclusively diagnosing from afar these cases in Georgia to tell you definitively that race explains these very different decisions by the Board of Pardons and Paroles? Of course not. It's so difficult to draw iron-clad conclusions about racial bias precisely because there are always so many alternative race-neutral explanations available for any one decision.

But in this instance, there's an obvious point for comparison. And you explain to me why a White defendant who admits to having gruesomely murdered another man over a financial dispute was spared by the Board, while a Black defendant around whom serious questions of innocence had arisen was allowed to be executed.

Like they say, when the shoe fits, you have to wear it. Even when it's not that comfortable to do so.

Sam Sommers is a social psychologist at Tufts University in Medford, MA. His first book, Situations Matter, will be published by Riverhead Books (Penguin) in December 2011. You can follow him on Facebook and on Twitter. Book trailer video below: