Last updated on: 8/20/2008 | Author:

Does a Person’s Income Level Affect the Likelihood of Receiving the Death Penalty?

PRO (yes)


Jeffrey L. Johnson, PhD, Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Oregon University, and Colleen F. Johnson, PhD, Professor of Economics at Eastern Oregon University, wrote in their June 2001 article “Poverty and the Death Penalty,” published in the Journal of Economic Issues, that:

“Capital punishment in the United States is administered in an economically discriminatory way. The wealth disparity between those murderers who live and those who die constitutes a serious constitutional challenge to the permissibility of the death penalty…

Our failure as a society to ensure some semblance of economic equality in our harshest criminal punishment constitutes a kind of procedural cruelty that is inconsistent with the Eighth Amendment to our Constitution. Unfortunately, our Supreme Court has demonstrated an almost pathological reticence to consider issues of class and wealth…

We vacillate in our commitment to neoclassical economic theory, but we concede the wisdom in the economic homily ‘you get what you pay for.’ The most obvious way that the current system works to the disadvantage of poor people is in the amount of professional compensation provided for indigent defense in capital cases.”

June 2001 - Jeffrey L. Johnson, PhD Colleen F. Johnson, PhD


Stephen B. Bright, JD, Director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, wrote in his May 1, 1994 article “Counsel for the Poor: The Death Sentence Not for the Worst Crime But for the Worst Lawyer,” published in the Yale Law Journal, that:

“[A] large part of the death row population is made up of people who are distinguished by neither their records nor the circumstances of their crimes, but by their abject poverty… and the poor legal representation they received…

There are several interrelated reasons for the poor quality of representation in these important cases. Most fundamental is the wholly inadequate funding for the defense of indigents. As a result, there is simply no functioning adversary system in many states. Public defender programs have never been created or properly funded in many jurisdictions. The compensation provided to individual court-appointed lawyers is so minimal that few accomplished lawyers can be enticed to defend capital cases…

Although the Supreme Court has held that indigent defendants may be entitled to expert assistance in certain circumstances, defense attorneys often do not even request such assistance because they are indifferent or know that no funds will be available. Courts often refuse to authorize funds for investigation and experts by requiring an extensive showing of need that frequently cannot be made without the very expert assistance that is sought. Many lawyers find it impossible to maneuver around this ‘Catch 22.’”

May 1, 1994 - Stephen B. Bright, JD


The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) wrote the following in its release “Talking Points: Suspend the Death Penalty,” published on (accessed Aug. 4, 2008):

“The death penalty is the most lethal form of social injustice in the United States. The race and class bias which permeates the American justice system result in this most extreme punishment being handed out almost exclusively to the poor…

Nearly all of the 3,500 Americans awaiting execution on death row today have low-income backgrounds…

The justice system is biased against those without the money to hire adequate legal defense. Nearly all death row inmates are poor and most are racial minorities. Temporary moratoriums are a temporary solution. There is only one fair resolution: the death penalty must be immediately and permanently suspended.”

Aug. 4, 2008 - National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)


Helen Prejean, MA, author of Dead Man Walking, wrote in her 1997 article “Would Jesus Pull the Switch?,” published in Salt of the Earth:

“Who pays the ultimate penalty for crimes? The poor. Who gets the death penalty? The poor. After all the rhetoric that goes on in legislative assemblies, in the end, when the net is cast out, it is the poor who are selected to die in this country.

And why do poor people get the death penalty? It has everything to do with the kind of defense they get.

When I agreed to write to Patrick Sonnier, I didn’t know much about him except that if he was on death row in Louisiana he had to be poor. And that holds true for virtually all of the more than 3,000 people who now inhabit death-row cells in our country.

Money gets you good defense. That’s why you’ll never see an O.J. Simpson on death row. As the saying goes: ‘Capital punishment means them without the capital get the punishment.'”

1997 - Helen Prejean, MA

CON (no)


Joshua Marquis, JD, District Attorney of Clatsop County, Oregon, wrote in his Mar. 31, 2005 article “The Myth of Innocence,” published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, that:

“The next urban legend is that of the threadbare but plucky public defender fighting against all odds against a team of sleek, heavily-funded prosecutors with limitless resources. The reality in the 21st century is startlingly different. There is no doubt that before the landmark 1963 decision in Gideon v. Wainwright appointed counsel was often inadequate. But the past few decades have seen the establishment of public defender systems that in many cases rival some of the best lawyers retained privately. The Chicago Tribune, while slamming the abilities of a number of individual defense counsel in Cook County capital cases in the 1980s, grudgingly admitted that the Cook County Public Defender’s Office provided excellent representation for its indigent clients.

Many giant silk-stocking law firms in large cities across America not only provide pro-bono counsel in capital cases, but also offer partnerships to lawyers whose sole job is to promote indigent capital defense. In one recent case in Alabama, a Portland, Oregon law firm spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of lawyer time on a post-conviction appeal for a death row inmate. In Oregon, where I have both prosecuted and defended capital cases, it is common for attorneys to be paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by the state for their representation of indigent capital clients. And the funding is not limited to legal assistance. Expert witnesses for the defense often total tens of thousands of dollars each, resources far beyond the reach of individual district attorneys who prosecute the same cases.”

Mar. 31, 2005 - Joshua Marquis, JD


Ernest Van Den Haag, PhD, former John M. Olin Professor of Jurisprudence and Public Policy at Fordham University, wrote in his May 1986 article “The Ultimate Punishment: A Defense,” published in the Harvard Law Review, that:

“Maldistribution of any punishment among those who deserve it is irrelevant to its justice or morality. Even if poor…convicts guilty of capital offenses suffer capital punishment, and other convicts equally guilty of the same crimes do not, a more equal distribution, however desirable, would merely be more equal. It would not be more just to the convicts under sentence of death.

Punishments are imposed on persons, not on…economic groups. Guilt is personal. The only relevant question is: does the person to be executed deserve the punishment? Whether or not others who deserved the same punishment, whatever the economic or racial group, have avoided execution is irrelevant.”

May 1986 - Ernest Van Den Haag, PhD


Kent S. Scheidegger, JD, Legal Director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, wrote in his Sep. 23, 2005 article “Should States Adopt Moratoriums on Executions? No,” published in the CQ Researcher, that:

“It has also been shown that lawyers appointed to represent the indigent get the same results on average as retained counsel. For example, Scott Peterson, with the lawyer to the stars, sits on death row, while the public defender got a life sentence for the penniless Unabomber. The mitigating circumstance of Theodore Kaczynski’s mental illness made the difference, not the lawyers.”

Sep. 23, 2005 - Kent Scheidegger, JD


Dudley Sharp, Resources Director at Justice For All, wrote in his Oct. 1, 1997 article “Death Penalty and Sentencing Information In the United States,” posted on, that:

“The most vile strategy of death penalty opponents is their use of propaganda to nurture hatreds and mistrust between race and class…

Is Sister Prejean saying that poor minorities are incapable of stopping themselves from committing capital murder!? Not only are Sister Prejean’s statements false, they are also grossly insulting to the poor and to minorities. Over 99% of all persons, including poor minorities, restrain themselves from committing capital murder. And there is, of course, no excuse for anyone that commits capital murder…

In the most extensive study of the economics of death row inmates, it was shown that, while 74% of Georgia murderers were poor, only 38% of those on Georgia’s death row were poor…there is no consensus in statistical analysis which proves that wealthy capital murders are less likely to be executed than their poorer ilk. In fact, statistics indicate that wealthy capital murderers may be more likely to be executed…

Murderers are put to death, not based on the…economic status of the victim or the murderer, but based upon death penalty statutes, the aggravated nature of and all specific circumstances of the crime, the criminal background of the murderer, and the other specific factors mandated by Supreme Court decisions. Since 1973, there is absolutely no credible evidence to support any other conclusion.”

Oct. 1, 1997 - Dudley Sharp