Murderer in S.C. is first white since '44 to be executed for killing a black victim

September 07, 1991|By David Margolick | David Margolick,New York Times News Service

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Nearly a half-century and at least 1,000 executions since it last happened in the United States, a white person was executed yesterday for killing a black.

Donald "Peewee" Gaskins was put to death in Columbia, S.C., early yesterday for the 1982 killing-for-hire of Rudolph Tyner, a fellow inmate and a black man who had himself been convicted '' of murder. The son of Tyner's victims hired Gaskins to kill Tyner, which he did by giving him a bomb disguised as a radio.

Not since 1944, when a Kansas man was executed for killing a black in an attempted robbery, has a white person in the United States received the death penalty for killing a black. No white has been executed in South Carolina for such a killing since 1880. The total number of executions in the state since that time is unclear, but 245 people have been sent to the state's electric chair since 1912.

Opponents of capital punishment have repeatedly charged that such disparities reflect persistent, systemic racism in the application of the death penalty. Gaskin's death in an electric chair seemed to some opponents to underscore just how rare it is in this country for a white to be executed for killing a black.

Gaskins had already been convicted of nine other murders, all of them of whites.

"That's apparently the sort of criminal record a white man needs to be executed for the murder of a black," said David Bruck, chief lawyer of the S.C. Office of Appellate Defense, who represents many death row inmates.

Although Gaskins was an avowed racist who said he killed Tyner in part because he was black, death penalty experts inside and outside South Carolina contended that race played little part in Gaskins' sentencing by a jury. The victim was

another inmate; any failure to impose the death penalty for killing another inmate would deprive the state of its only meaningful deterrent to prison killings.

"As a matter of state correctional policy, they had to give death in this case," said Richard Burr of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. in New York. "If you're going to let the families of murder victims murder their murderers, you've got a serious problem. The racial combinations mean very little in light of the kind of homicide it was."

According to a 1989 study by a sociologist at the University of Florida of 15,978 executions in the United States or the American colonies since 1608, only 30 -- that is, one in every 533 -- were of whites who killed blacks. Several of the instances involved the murder of slaves and were, therefore, treated as economic crimes against slaveholders.

Since executions were resumed in the United States in 1977 after a decade-long hiatus, 42 of the 153 people executed have been blacks who killed whites; none had been of whites who killed blacks.

"The scandalous paucity of these cases, representing less than two-tenths of 1 percent of known executions, lends further support to the evidence that the death penalty in this country has been discriminatorily applied," wrote the sociologist Michael Radolet.

Statistics show that more than 90 percent of murders in the United States are intraracial -- that is, whites killing whites or blacks killing blacks. FBI statistics suggest that in the last three years, cases in which blacks killed whites were about twice as common as cases of whites killing blacks.

That would mean that about 3 percent of all murders in the United States are whites killing blacks, far more than the two-tenths of 1 percent of the executions of whites who killed blacks.

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