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Death penalty unfair to Blacks, poor

By Askia Muhammad | Last updated: Sep 1, 2000 - 9:57:00 PM

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WASHINGTON (FinalCall.com) - Most of the 3,565 inmates languishing on death row in prisons throughout America would quickly agree with those who oppose its use in this country.

Since 42 percent of them are Black—while Blacks constitute only about 11 percent of the overall population—most are already convinced that the punishment is unfairly applied.

Since most of those under death sentences are poor and could not afford adequate legal representation, the link between wealth and class and the quality of legal representation is yet another disparity between those who receive and those who escape death sentences.

And since 82 death-row inmates have already been exonerated and released from jail after new evidence proved their innocence—representing 14 percent of the 566 who have been legally put to death since the Supreme Court reinstated the punishment in 1976—a strong argument can be made against death sentences because too many innocent people receive an irreversible punishment when mistakes are made.

But there is another reason why the anti-death-penalty movement is gaining momentum and will not go away:

"First of all, the death penalty is the opposite of a deterrent. In fact, it evokes more violence. In addition, it condones violence. It condones murder," says Kiilu Nyasha, a former 1960s Black Panther Party member in New Haven, Conn., and now a community activist who lives and works in San Francisco.

"The death penalty is dehumanizing us, collectively speaking, just as homelessness is dehumanizing us," Ms. Nyasha told The Final Call. "Our humanity is being diminished. Even the best of us are forced to tolerate the escalation of this killing machine, knowing full well that it’s unjust."

Kim McMillon agrees. She is the organizer of an upcoming discussion of Pennsylvania death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal’s case and the death penalty among activists and law professors in Berkeley, Calif., on Sept. 24.

"If we look at the death penalty in terms of all aspects of society—people, racial, cultural, societal, political—you may not have the same viewpoint," Ms. McMillon said in an interview.

Many people look at the death penalty, simply in terms of right or wrong, she said. "But that’s just a small point. It doesn’t cover what we as a society are doing to ourselves," she said.

The death penalty is a convenient symbol. It is used by politicians—like Republican Presidential candidate George W. Bush who in two terms as Governor of Texas has presided over 100 of the 184 executions in his state since 1976, and even by local judges and prosecutors—who run on a so-called "law and order" platforms that portray them as being "tough on crime."

"Its function in our country is to hold up a very few, very heinous crimes, and by doing that and scaring people with it, then we justify locking up the millions who are just doing non-violent drug offenses, using, buying, selling drugs," said Melody Ermachild Chavis, author of "Altars in the Street." She is a researcher and a defense consultant who has worked on more than 100 death penalty cases in California over the last 20 years.

"Many of our prisoners now are mentally ill or uneducated, or have trauma in their backgrounds, and we aren’t having to look at any of that, because our attention is always focused on the latest, really heinous crime, which is actually very, very few," Ms. Chavis said.

"If we weren’t focusing on the death penalty, if it just didn’t exist, and everybody was in prison, perhaps we could put some attention to getting our taxpayer money’s worth from the prisons, where, if people could be educated in there, rehabilitated, given some drug treatment, we would be giving some real benefit to our society," she said.

While the race of the accused is disproportionately a factor in receiving a death sentence, a bigger factor is the race of the victim. If the victim in a capital case is white, the vast majority of those convicted have been sentenced to death,

"When it comes to the race of the victim, 83 percent of the death penalty cases involve white victims, which is a very high percentage," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), which has monitored the use of capital punishment nationally, since 1990.

Mistakes by lawyers in capital cases is the most common legal error, according to Mr. Dieter. "They don’t do the investigation, they don’t challenge the racial make-up of the jury and, of course, you’re more likely to get poor representation if you get a court-appointed lawyer because you can’t afford your own.

"That leads to a strong conclusion that the death penalty is very arbitrary, or very unfairly applied. That, I think, is the biggest problem of the death penalty," he said.

Ms. Chavis agrees, recalling that she worked on a case for a wealthy white defendant who was acquitted, whose circumstances are almost identical to the case of a poor white defendant who was put to death.

Describing the cases she said both involved two men in a room with a woman; in both cases the two men were romantically involved with the woman; and it was obvious (in each case) that one of the men killed the woman and the other one did not, she explained.

"They both blamed each other at trial. In one trial, both men were acquitted, so in that case somebody got away with murder. In the other trial, a man was executed, on the word of the other man. The death penalty system," she said, "is absolutely unfair, and it cannot be made fair."

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