Two men were murdered by the state last night in ‘legal executions’ in Texas and Georgia, respectively. Lawrence Russel Brewer was a white supremacist who committed a vile hate crime and was sentenced to death for it, in the face of outcry from the victim’s family, which opposed capital punishment in the case. Troy Davis was a man who was, in all probability, innocent of a 1989 shooting of a police officer, but spent half his life on death row nonetheless. A literal last minute delay from the Supreme Court ended with an eventual denial of a stay—four hours after his scheduled execution, prison officials began the process. Speaking after the killing, Davis’ attorney reiterated his statement that this was a judicial lynching.
Another man, Derrick Mason, is scheduled to die in Alabama tonight. Supporters of his clemency request include the judge who originally sentenced him to death, who argues that he would not issue such a sentence in that case today and regrets very much having done so at the time. Like many Black men who encounter the justice system in the United States, Mason had inadequate legal representation and his attorneys failed to introduce mitigating circumstances during his trial. Death by bad lawyer is a not uncommon sentence in the United States.
For a very brief period in the 1970s, the United States suspended the use of the death penalty. It was a golden moment for the nation, which could have seized it and become a leader in the abolition of capital punishment worldwide. Growing numbers of countries refuse to perform capital punishment, and the United States is on an increasingly shrinking list of nations it normally wouldn’t want to associate with. The condemnation of these nations for human rights violations seems especially galling in the face of the cold-blooded murder of people in execution chambers across 34 states.
The death machine is back in full swing, perhaps most notably in Texas, which has attracted headlines in recent weeks as a result of Rick Perry’s presidential candidacy. Perry has been particularly outspoken in his promotion of the use of capital punishment despite the fact that innocent people have been executed on his watch as Governor of Texas. The grievous miscarriage of justice that ended in Georgia last night with the murder of Troy Davis at 11:08 Eastern attracted international attention and the support of people ranging from the Pope to former Justice Department employees, including ardent death penalty supporters.
It was only one among many such cases, the result of a deeply broken, twisted, damaged ‘justice system’ which is heavily snarled with race and class issues. Troy Davis was a Black man accused of killing not just a white man, but a white police officer, which essentially ensured that there would be immense pressure to convict, and execute in the event of a conviction. Despite the fact that seven of the nine eyewitnesses in his case later recanted, despite the fact that there was no physical evidence to link him to the crime, despite the fact that witnesses reported police intimidation and pressure, numerous appeals in his case failed, even at the highest court in the land; ‘the court has never found a constitutional right for the actually innocent to be free from execution’ and it certainly didn’t buck that trend last night. The failsafes that are supposed to prevent the murder of innocents failed, and Allen McPhail’s real murderer still walks free.
The American Psychological Association, among a number of other medical organisations as well as human rights and social justice groups, has spoken out strongly against the use of the death penalty, urging a moratorium on the use of capital punishment in the United States until the serious inequalities in the justice system can be resolved. When discussing capital punishment, it is impossible to avoid the grievous racial biases throughout the justice system in the United States, and in capital cases in particular. The case for abolition in the face of these issues is overwhelming.
Cases involving white victims are more likely to lead to calls, often successful, for a capital sentence than those involving people of colour, an undeniable and painfully obvious illustration of the racial disparities at stake. When people of colour were the accused in federal cases, the ACLU points out, ‘U.S. Attorneys recommended the death penalty in 36% of the cases with black defendants and non-black victims, but only recommended the death penalty in 20% of the cases with black defendants and black victims.’ Similar disparities can be seen on the state level with members of other races. Such is the value of the life of people of colour in the United States.
Racial bias in the justice system extends far beyond the death chamber. It is present in sentencing inequalities, which contribute to an alarmingly high concentration of people of colour in US prisons. It is present when police officers stop and harass young people of colour, not just for driving while Black, but for existing while not white. It is present when BART police officers shoot young men of colour on train platforms and are found guilty only of involuntary manslaughter. It is present in the determination of which cases should go to trial, and how they should be tried. It is present in the lack of access to good legal representation which ensures that many people of colour who encounter the justice system do not have fair trials.
The upswelling of support for Troy Davis case was the direct consequence of tireless activism on the part of his family members, who persisted in attempts to expose the truth of the case in the face of considerable opposition. It was a case so obviously, blatantly wrong that it was able to unite people across political and social divides. That unity provided a glimmer of hope for complete abolition; it is high time to end the death penalty in the United States, to address the gross injustices rife in our legal system, to ensure that the nation lives up the ideal of ‘freedom and justice for all.’
…this Movement to end the death penalty, to seek true justice, to expose a system that fails to protect the innocent must be accelerated. There are so many more Troy Davis’. This fight to end the death penalty is not won or lost through me but through our strength to move forward and save every innocent person in captivity around the globe. We need to dismantle this Unjust system city by city, state by state and country by country. I can’t wait to Stand with you, no matter if that is in physical or spiritual form, I will one day be announcing, ‘I AM TROY DAVIS, and I AM FREE!’
Interviewed on Democracy Now during their coverage of the Davis killing, Kathryn Hamoudah of the Southern Center for Human Rights pointed out that the cause of death on death certificates written for execution victims reads ‘homicide.’
‘Basically it went very quietly,’ media witness John Lewis said after the killing.