It would not be unreasonable to assume that on the evening of Sunday, October 26, Democratic Party presidential candidate, Barack Obama, might have spent an hour or so contemplating the likely prospect of his election as the next US President, along with the historic achievement of being the first African-American ever to be so. Meanwhile, on the same night, seated in his cell in Georgia, another African-American male was no doubt contemplating a future that had it not been for a stay of execution granted by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals just two days prior, would have been ended by lethal injection the very next day, on Monday October 27.
Had Troy Davis failed in his final appeal for a stay of execution, he would have been the twelfth black man to be executed in the US in 2008, the twenty-eighth in total for the year, and the 1128th person to be executed in the US since the death penalty was re-introduced in 1976.
Since its reintroduction, the application of the death penalty in the US reveals the extent to which race plays a major factor in determining who gets executed. A 2003 report compiled by the American Civil Liberties Union concludes that people of colour accounted for 43 percent of executions since 1976, and comprised 55 percent of those awaiting execution. In addition, the report continues, while whites accounted for approximately half of all murder victims, 80 percent of all capital murder cases involved white victims. Furthermore, as of October 2002, 12 people had been executed where the defendant was white and the murder victim black, compared to 178 black defendants executed for murders involving white victims.
A 2008 study by Scott Phillips, associate professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Denver, Colorado, concludes that in Harris County, Texas, the execution capital of the US, the District Attorney was more likely to pursue the death penalty in cases where the defendant is African American, and less likely to pursue the death penalty in cases where the victim is African American.
Perhaps an even more shocking report is one undertaken by Human Rights Watch which reveals that at least 34 men known to have been mentally retarded are among those executed since 1976.
The arbitrariness and racial dimension to the death penalty in the US is exemplified in two cases involving the participation of California governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Elected into office back in 2003, one of Governor Schwarzenegger’s first acts was the denial of a plea for clemency on behalf of San Quentin death row inmate, Kevin Cooper. Cooper had spent 18 years on death row for the murder of a family of three and their house guest in 1983. Cooper, a black man, had always proclaimed his innocence, claiming that he was framed for this murder by the local Sheriff’s Department. His execution was scheduled for early 2004, but just hours before it was due to take place a stay was granted by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
Another black man, Stan Tookie Williams, wasn’t so lucky. An acknowledged former leader of the notorious LA street gang, the Crips, Williams was convicted of the murder of four men back in 1979.
Whilst in prison, he renounced his past life and gang activities and was nominated for a Noble Peace Prize for a series of books he wrote trying to steer young black men away from criminal gangs and the pervasive gang culture that exists throughout the United States.
His life story was the subject of a film starring Jamie Foxx. The film was called Redemption, yet despite a campaign involving Foxx to save Williams’ life there was to be no redemption under the governorship of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Stan Tookie Williams was executed by lethal injection at the beginning of 2005. As part of his statement denying Williams clemency, Schwarzenegger wrote:
"The dedication of Williams' book Life in Prison casts significant doubt on his personal redemption and… the mix of individuals on [the dedication] list is curious" … "the inclusion of George Jackson on the list defies reason and is a significant indicator that Williams is not reformed."
The George Jackson to whom Schwarzenegger refers in his statement is the famed black writer of the internationally renowned book of prison letters - Soledad Brother. Written over a number of years by Jackson whilst in prison, in them he offers a scathing critique of US society and his commitment to black liberation through revolutionary struggle.
Of course, no one should doubt the qualifications of Arnold Schwarzenegger to deliberate and decide the matter of who should live and who should die within California’s vast penal system. After all, this former champion bodybuilder and movie actor also happens to be white and very rich, attributes which obviously endow him with the ability to empathise with the poverty and alienation suffered by those who exist on the bottom rung of the economic and social ladder in the US, men and women whose experience of the American dream is that of a nightmare.
As for Troy Davis, he was convicted for the murder of an off duty policeman in 1991, largely on the basis of eyewitness testimony. There was no physical evidence linking him to the crime, and since his trial seven of nine eyewitnesses have recanted their original statements. It is almost certain that he is innocent, yet it took until two days before his scheduled execution for a stay to be granted to allow his case to be re-examined. One can only imagine the horror experienced waiting to be executed, knowing your life hangs on the decision of a court or a governor with an eye on re-election.
Yet such horror is suffered regularly by the thousands of human beings languishing on death row in the US at any one time. Moreover, it’s worth noting, when considering such barbarity, that we are describing the legal and penal system of the nation which considers itself the leader of the free world.
Meanwhile, presidential candidate, Barack Obama, continues to tour the United States in a private jet spreading a message of hope. As part of this message he is fond of proclaiming that only in America would his story be possible.
The ugly truth of America in 2008 is that Troy Davis, and thousands like him, would be able to say the same.
John Wight was based in the US for five years from 2000-2005. There he became active in the Save Kevin Cooper campaign briefly described in this piece.
Background from SACC
- According to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the number of inmates on death rows across the USA on 1 January 2008 was 3,309. And 55 percent of inmates were Black, Latino/Latina, Native American or Asian.
- Why Arnold killed Tookie - the execution of Stanley Tookie Williams, 13 December 2005
- Save Kevin Cooper Campaign