By chris crews
“I ask my family and friends to continue to fight this fight”
As most people are now aware, Troy Davis is dead, legally murdered by the state of Georgia on the evening of Wednesday, September 21st 2011. Davis was charged with the killing of an off-duty white police officer in 1989, a charge Davis denied until his death, and which considerable evidence supports–among them the lack of any DNA evidence and 7 key witnesses recanting their testimony against him, citing among other things, police intimidation and coercion. Many see the Davis case as emblematic of the racism and injustice built into the use of the death penalty in the U.S.
What received less attention, however, were two simultaneous death penalty cases which occurred at the same time. One involved white supremacist Lawrence Russell Brewer, who was convicted in 1999 of the killing of James Byrd Jr., a black man from East Texas. Byrd was chained to the bumper of a pickup and dragged behind until his body was torn to pieces and left beside a black church cemetery.
Two other men were involved in the Byrd killing, John William King, who was also convicted of murder and sent to death row for Byrd’s death, and Shawn Berry, who is serving a life sentence. King is still appealing his conviction and death sentence. All three men were involved with the Confederate Knights of America, a KKK and Aryan Brotherhood splinter group active in Texas, and the murder of Byrd was tried as a hate crime in the Texas courts.
The other involved Cleve Foster, who was scheduled to be executed Tuesday evening for the rape-slaying of Nyaneur “Mary” Pal in 2002 in Fort Worth, Texas. Foster had appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court for a stay on his execution, and the Court had granted his request shortly before he was scheduled to be executed. Foster’s petition for a writ of certiorari, or Cert Petition, is a review of the case and facts from a lower court by the Supreme Court. This was the third time that Foster had his imminent execution delayed because of a court order. Foster and his partner Sheldon Ward, who died in 2010 from a brain tumor while on death row, were also suspected of the earlier murder and rape of Rachel Urnosky, also in Fort Worth, a few months earlier.
“DNA tests later revealed that both men had had sex with Pal. Ballistics showed that the bullet that killed Pal was fired from Ward’s .40-caliber gun, which was found in a drawer in the Haltom City motel room where they lived. And police found shoes, bungee cords, black gloves, a hatchet and a knife soaking in cleaning fluid in an ice chest in Foster’s truck.“
Foster’s case history involves nearly 30 separate motions and court hearings at every level of the legal system, and his attorney has brought various different legal defenses to bear at different time: he was not guilty, he had an unfair hearing, the change in lethal injection chemicals were unfairly changed, etc. So now Foster remains on death row for his crimes, his execution stayed by the courts, and he awaits the US Supreme Court’s disposition on his petition for a writ of certiorari. The US Supreme Court had already denied four previous writs of certiorai by Foster, and this is the third stay on his execution this year by the Court, which is unusual even in a death penalty case. It is unclear exactly why the Supreme Court issued another stay and agreed to hear another petition from Foster. The Court order reads as follows:
“The application for stay of execution of sentence of death presented to Justice Scalia and by him referred to the Court is granted pending the disposition of the petition for a writ of certiorari. Should the petition for a writ of certiorari be denied, this stay shall terminate automatically. In the event the petition for a writ of certiorari is granted, the stay shall terminate upon the issuance of the mandate of this Court.“
Like Davis, Foster still maintains his innocence in the two rape-slaying cases. However, unlike Foster, both Troy Davis and Lawrence Russell Brewer were executed on Wednesday night by lethal injection. Brewer expressed no regrets, and in his only interview, suggested he would “do it all over again” if given the chance. Greg Mitchell, writing about the execution of Davis in the Nation (The Other Execution Tonight), noted that this juxtaposition offered a clear and powerful test to those opposed to the death penalty. Many people believe that hate crimes like that committed by Brewer and his associates against Byrd are clear examples of black on white hate violence and injustice, especially given Brewer’s self-confessed involvement in white supremacist groups in Texas. For many progressives, his case is a clear example of a truly awful crime worthy of the death penalty, unlike the questionable basis in the Davis case.
Yet there remains no doubt that a consistent anti-death penalty position requires defending a white supremacist guilty of hate crimes against a differently-abled black man just as strongly as it does defending Troy Davis. For many people, that is a hard position to take, especially given the contrasting racial politics of these two cases.
The National Coalition Against the Death Penalty had this to say about the executions:
“We should also note the odd juxtaposition of the two executions scheduled for exactly the same time this evening. At 7 pm EDT in Georgia, racism plays a part in the execution of Troy Davis. At 6 pm CDT in Texas, Lawrence Brewer is to be executed for his participation in the infamous racist hate crime dragging murder of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas, in 1998. Please join NCADP in opposing the executions of both men. We stand against all executions without reservation.”
Being consistent with all of our politics is extremely challenging in this day and age, but the deeper question is, at least as I see it, one of morality. How can we advocate for Troy Davis while not also advocating for Lawrence Brewer? The short answer is we can, and we should. One such powerful example is provided in the comments from Betty Boatner, James Byrd’s sister, on the scheduled execution of Lawrence Brewer:
“I don’t hate him. I really feel sorry for him because of the path he chose. His life had to be so miserable that he had to join a group that hated someone so much he’d take their life. Even though people give you the ammunition to hate, I refuse to. Hate is like cancer. It will eat you up. If I saw him face to face, I’d tell him I forgive him for what he did. Otherwise, I’d be like him. My mom forgave all three of them. My mom didn’t want violence anywhere.“
Compare these remarks to those of Joan MacPhail-Harris, the widow of the officer who Davis was accused of killing. It is clear from her remarks that she does not seek closure, but rather revenge, and to make sure others suffer as she has suffered–an eye for an eye:
“I will grieve for the Davis family because now they’re going to understand our pain and our hurt.“
So why do some Americans, especially those not fundamentally opposed to the death penalty, continue to believe the death penalty is actually a solution? It’s a hard dilemma I’ve had to re-engage with this week in trying to get a statement released by the University Student Senate (USS) condemning the murder of Troy Davis. Many people who identify as “progressive” may oppose the murder of Davis on the grounds of reasonable doubt, but not for any principled anti-death penalty reasons. And here is where the paradox emerges: how can you be for Troy Davis but not against the death penalty?
For me, the case of Troy Davis is a microcosm of the structural flaws with the death penalty in general, and with issues of race and class in the criminal justice system in particular. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to examine the stats on the criminal justice system, and the death penalty, to see just how skewed both systems are in terms of racial and class inequalities. Examples abound like this, and this and this and even this.
For example, in 1972 the U.S. jailed 330,000 people, but today that number is closer to 2.1 million.(1) Nor is it an accident that 60% of those incarcerated in the US are poor youth of color.(2) It comes as no surprise, then, that yet another black man was sentenced to death for supposedly killing a white cop, while white police regularly murder young men of color without any repercussions. The stories of Mumia Abu-Jamal, Rodney King, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant and Troy Davis are not unusual, they are the norm for how racial injustice manifests in the so-called “criminal justice” system of the United States.
My point being, opposition to the death penalty cannot be–or at least I would argue should not be–separated from issues of race and class. When we do that, as many progressives supporting Davis but not opposing the death penalty have done, we are also defending the continued legitimacy of a racist legal system under the ruse of “justice,” “deterrence,” and “closure,” three of the favorite buzz words of advocates for the death penalty.
But the truth is there is no justice in the death penalty. It also fails miserable as a deterrence, as has been well documented. And to equate state murder with gaining “closure” for a loved ones death is a sign of just how sick our society has become in this day and age. Hammurabi would certainly feel at home in the good ole’ USA.