McCleskey v. Kemp (1987) | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Courts / Corrections

McCleskey v. Kemp was a landmark United States Supreme Court case in 1987 that dealt with the issue of racial discrimination in the application of the death penalty.

In McCleskey v. Kemp, the central figure was Warren McCleskey, an African American man. His conviction was for murdering a white police officer in Georgia. McCleskey’s punishment for this crime was death, the most severe penalty in our justice system.

The Argument

McCleskey didn’t dispute his guilt in this case. Rather, his argument centered on a fundamental question of fairness. He asserted that racial bias played a role in his fairness. He offered statistics as evidence, suggesting that Georgia was more likely to sentence Black defendants like him to death than white ones accused of similar crimes. So, his argument was about a systemic issue, not just his case.

Statistical Evidence

The statistics McCleskey presented came from a famous study known as the “Baldus study.” It indicated that the victim’s race influenced the likelihood of a death sentence in Georgia, particularly if the victim was white and the defendant was Black. This evidence, McCleskey argued, showed racial discrimination in death penalty sentencing.

The Supreme Court’s Ruling

Despite the statistical evidence and compelling argument, the Supreme Court disagreed with McCleskey. They argued that showing racial disparities in sentencing isn’t enough. A defendant, they explained, must prove deliberate discrimination in their specific case. Therefore, even if there was an overall trend toward racial bias, it wouldn’t affect individual sentences unless there was clear evidence of intentional prejudice.

Consequences of the Ruling

The Supreme Court’s decision sent shockwaves through the legal community. Critics charged that the Court missed an opportunity to address racial bias in the justice system. It raised questions about whether statistics alone could ever prove systemic discrimination. This was a massive blow to those advocating for equality in the criminal justice system.

Critiques of the Decision

The McCleskey v. Kemp decision has faced widespread criticism. Critics argue that it essentially allows for racial disparities in the death penalty as long as discrimination isn’t explicit. This means that if bias is subconscious or hidden, it may not be enough to challenge a death sentence. Critics say this sets an almost impossible standard for proving racial discrimination.

Long-Term Impact of McCleskey v. Kemp

The long-term impact of McCleskey v. Kemp has been significant. It’s been a key factor in the ongoing debate about the death penalty and racial bias. It’s also affected how courts evaluate statistical evidence of discrimination. As a result, it’s harder to challenge systemic bias in the criminal justice system, making the fight for racial equality even more complex.


McCleskey v. Kemp was more than just a Supreme Court case. It was, and continues to be, a symbol of the struggle against racial bias in the justice system. The court’s decision remains a controversial subject, revealing the challenges that persist in ensuring equality before the law.

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Last Modified: 06/03/2023

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