The use of animal imagery to describe Black criminal defendants plays into a long and brutal history of dehumanizing Black people. 20th century newspapers compared Black men to animals when covering their executions.
“the young gorilla-like negro”
“like a wild beast”
“Gross looked the part of the picture that ‘mean n[—–]’ conjures up. Short squat, thick-bodied and with the face of a gorilla”
“the eyes of a trapped animal; eyes that darted furtively from first one ‘captor’ or guard, then another”
“The fight-back instinct of the trapped animal surged to a climax”
Prosecutors likewise compared Black defendants to animals at trial.
“He is a human hyena and should be treated as such.”
– Gates County prosecutor, 1926
Even in the era of the modern death penalty, prosecutors still use animal imagery and other dehumanizing slurs when arguing to juries why Black men should be executed.
“a pack of humans acting as wolves when they descended on her”
Called the defendant an “animal” and his neighborhood a “jungle”
“like a big black bull”
“like the weasel that he is… a worthless, good for nothing mammal”
“just like the predators of the African plain.”
“a street-wise, Department-of-Corrections-honed thug”