[Ppnews] Georgia's Racist Death Penalty

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Wed Jan 2 15:01:06 EST 2008


January 2, 2008

"At Least Five Men Who Were Sentenced to Death in Georgia had Lawyers 
who Referred to Them in Court as 'Niggers.'"

Georgia's Racist Death Penalty


Thinking back on 2007, one of the major victories for human rights 
was the end of the death penalty in New Jersey. On December 13, 2007 
the New Jersey legislature repealed the cruel practice and we are 
told that Governor Jon S. Corzine will sign the bill. New Jersey is 
the first state to ban the death penalty since executions began again 
after the U.S. Supreme Court's Gregg v Georgia decision in 1976. We 
in Georgia feature considerably in the recent efforts to end the 
death penalty in the United States. This is probably because Georgia 
has an outrageously cruel history of executing minors, mentally 
retarded, mentally ill and particularly Black males who have been 
accused of killing whites. Our notorious racist history is prime 
grounds for resistance.

The U.S. record on capital punishment overall, however, is dismal. 
With New Jersey's decision, there are now 37 states with the death 
penalty and 13 without. Compared to the rest of the industrialized 
world the U.S. stands as one of the most backward regarding capital 
punishment - all of Western Europe, most of Eastern Europe, Russia, 
Australia, Canada, South Africa, have all abandoned the death 
penalty. In fact, according to sociologist Michael Radelet in his 
article "Thirty Years after Gregg", "in 2005, 94 percent of all known 
judicial executions (those imposed by courts of law) were carried out 
in just four countries: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United States."

Radelet says further that the U.S. "Supreme Court decisions can be 
reflective of standards of decency, albeit belatedly, (as) in March 
2005 the Court finally banned the death penalty for prisoners who 
committed their crimes prior to their eighteenth birthdays." The age 
of 18 is the international standard. He tells us that between 1990 
and December 2005 Amnesty International documented 46 executions of 
child offenders in eight countries (the Democratic Republic of the 
Congo, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the U.S., China and 
Yemen). In that time period there were 19 executions of child 
offenders in the United States giving it the world record for this 
barbaric procedure.

Capital punishment in the U.S. is also extremely racist in nature and 
the excellent work by Iowa University law professor David Baldus and 
his colleagues clearly demonstrates this reality. Baldus reports in 
1990 that in Georgia "the death sentence was four times more likely 
to be applied when the victim was white rather than Black and that 
Blacks who kill Whites are 11 times more likely to receive the death 
penalty then Whites who kill Blacks" (Georgia Moratorium Campaign).

Racist traditions in criminal justice are definitely maintained in 
Georgia's courtrooms. Georgia attorney Stephen Bright notes in the 
Santa Clara Law Review "At least five men who were sentenced to death 
in Georgia had lawyers who referred to them in court as 'niggers.'"

This also demonstrates another major problem with death penalty 
convictions, which is that they are generally reserved for the poor 
who cannot afford other than court appointed attorneys who are 
renowned for not pursuing justice for their clients or have no 
resources for adequate defense.

Here's some background on critical Georgia cases regarding challenges 
to the death penalty.

In 1972 the Furman v Georgia case was decided by the U.S. Supreme 
Court. The argument under Furman was of the capricious and racist 
nature of the death penalty in the United States. In a 5 to 4 
decision, the court overruled the use of the death penalty. The 
justices expressed concern about the "standardless discretion" of 
death penalty convictions.

After Furman, the implementation of capital punishment was suspended 
and the states went back to the drawing board to develop procedures 
they hoped would pass muster with the court. They needed to prove to 
the Supreme Court that they had a standardized process that would 
eliminate the capricious application of the death penalty. Florida 
led the way in this, but by 1976, Radelet notes that 35 states had 
passed new death penalty laws. Georgia was one of them.

By 1975 Gregg v Georgia was before the Supreme Court along with cases 
from other southern states--North Carolina, Louisiana, Florida and 
Texas - saying that they had resolved the problem. The court agreed 
that the statutes presented by the states with "guided discretion" 
for juries in death penalty convictions likely resolved the problems 
referred to in the Furman case. After the Court's Gregg decision 
announcement in 1976 the states once again resumed killing their 
death row inmates. Radelet makes convincing arguments in his 2006 
article, however, that since Gregg the new statutes did not resolve 
the random and capricious nature of death penalty convictions!

The third and critical case presented before the court by Georgia was 
McClesky v Kemp in 1987 (Kemp being the Superintendent of the Georgia 
Diagnostic and Classification Center in Jackson, Georgia where death 
row inmates are housed and executed). The Baldus study was presented 
to the Supreme Court stating that McClesky, a Black male accused of 
killing a white male, was given the death penalty under racially 
biased conditions relating to the race of the victim. The Court ruled 
that McClesky's equal protection had not been violated.

The Supreme Court did not allow for McClesky to demonstrate the 
glaring institutional racism in America as his defense, rather he had 
to prove that there had been a diliberate attempt by Georgia 
authorities to violate his "individual" rights. McClesky was executed 
by the State of Georgia on September 25, 1991.

On September 24, 1991, the day before McClesky was executed, I 
interviewed attorney Stephen Bright on my radio program. There was 
still hope that the Court would stop the procedure. It was not to be. 
Activists in Georgia quickly transcribed the interview as McClesky 
wanted to read it. Later in the week I went to McClesky's funeral in Atlanta.

The history of the death penalty in Georgia demonstrates the 
egregious ongoing racist nature of the punishment as demonstrated in 
a fascinating article by "The Athens Observer" in 1994 entitled 
"Sentenced to Death." The paper states, "Racism is the vilest and 
most notorious aspect of the unfairness that has infected Georgia's 
death penalty throughout its history. It is a tragic fact that 
traditionally capital punishment in Georgia has been used to 
perpetuate white supremacy." This continues today, of course!

What is interesting about "The Athens Observer" article, however, are 
the criteria for crimes that were given the death penalty in Georgia. 
Clearly, as indicated by the so-called crimes, there was significant 
resistance by African slaves to their oppression and efforts by 
abolitionists attempting to free the slaves, none of which was 
appreciated by Georgia's white elite.

Here's a summary on how historically you could be given a death 
penalty conviction in Georgia.

In 1775 capital crimes involved "any slave who killed a white person, 
grievously wounded, maimed or bruised a white person, was convicted 
for a third time of striking a white person, raised or attempted an 
insurrection, or endeavored to entice a slave to run away and leave 
the colony. The 1755 law also made it a capital crime for a slave to 
steal slaves, to administer poison to anyone, to burn or destroy 
stacks of crops, to set fire to tar or turpentine barrels, or to 
attempt to run away from his master...."

In 1816, "Georgia statute made the following acts capital crimes, but 
only if committed by a slave or a 'free person of color': poisoning 
or attempted poisoning; insurrection or attempted insurrection; rape 
or attempted rape of a white female; assaulting a white person with a 
deadly weapon or with intent to murder; maiming a white person; and burglary."

To maintain slavery, in 1829 Georgia decided to punish white 
abolitionists. In 1829, "whites could be executed for introducing 
into Georgia, or circulating in Georgia, any publication for the 
purpose of inciting a revolt among the slaves." This statute was 
again repeated in 1863 in the midst of the Civil War.

The racist nature of the death penalty in Georgia, and throughout 
America itself, is appalling. When Georgia began executing death row 
inmates with a vengeance after the 1976 Gregg decision, the first one 
was in 1983 and 14 in total throughout the 1980s. Many of us involved 
with the Georgia Committee Against the Death Penalty would make the 
trek to the Jackson Diagnostic Center, about 45 miles south of 
Atlanta, to be outside the prison when the executions took place. 
Invariably the Klu Klux Klan was there to celebrate the death of yet 
another Black inmate.

The ritual surrounding the executions at Jackson is always surreal. 
When you enter the grounds of the prison the guards will search your 
car, ask if you are for or against the execution and then point you 
in the appropriate direction. Invariably we would form a circle and 
sing protest or peace songs while the Klan in the opposite area 
chanted their vicious racial slurs. Ultimately, the guards will 
inform us when the inmate, who has been strapped to the electric 
chair with currents coursing through his body, has been killed. The 
State of Georgia will also have jets flying over the Jackson prison 
as the inmate is being executed which is rather like some sort of 
decadent ritual demonstrating the State's power over life. In some 
ways the inmate is a blood sacrifice to the all-powerful State.

Then I would make my way back to Atlanta on Interstate 75 as if life 
was somehow normal after that experience. It never is! It's been said 
that if Jesus were alive today and executed people would walk around 
wearing an electric chair or maybe a lethal injection needle rather 
than a cross.

As Supreme Court Justice William Brennan said in his dissent on the 
McClesky case:

"Warren McClesky doubtless asked his lawyer whether a jury was likely 
to sentence him to die. A candid reply to this question would have 
been disturbing. First, counsel would have to tell McClesky that few 
of the details of the crime or of McClesky's past criminal conduct 
were more important than the fact that his victim was white. 
Furthermore, counsel would feel bound to tell McClesky that 
defendants charged with killing white victims in Georgia are 4.3 
times as likely to be sentenced to death as defendants charged with 
killing blacks. In addition, frankness would compel the disclosure 
that it was more likely than not that the race of McCleskey's victim 
would determine whether he received the death sentence.Finally, the 
assessment would not be complete without the information that cases 
involving black defendants and white victims are more likely to 
result in a death sentence than cases featuring any other combination 
of defendant and victim. The story could be told in a variety of 
ways, but McClesky could not fail to grasp its essential narrative 
line: there was a significant chance that race would play a prominent 
role in determining if he lived or died."

Any who thinks that racism and the maintenance of white supremacy is 
not a leading reason for implementing the capital punishment in the 
United States must be kidding themselves. As Supreme Court Justice 
Harry Blackmun ultimately conceded, "Even under the most 
sophisticated death penalty statutes, race continues to pay a major 
role in determining who shall live and who shall die." Hopefully, the 
wise decision by the New Jersey legislature to end the death penalty 
bodes well for an America that might sometime rid itself of the 
scourge of capital punishment.

Heather Gray produces "Just Peace" on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering 
local, regional, national and international news. She can be reached 
at <mailto:hmcgray at earthlink.net>hmcgray at earthlink.net.

Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

415 863-9977

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