May 10, 2007
Racism, resistance and the death penalty
By Gloria Rubac, Workers World
Hours before he was executed on March 7, Joseph Nichols told his mother what
had happened to him as the prison prepared to move him from death-row
housing in Livingston, Texas, to the death house in Huntsville.
"They cut off all my clothes and stripped me naked. I finally got a pair of
boxers but my feet were shackled together, my hand were chained and then
another chain bound my feet, went up over my shoulders and bound my hands.
This is how our people were brought here from the motherland, naked and
chained, and this is how I will leave."
Nichols was executed despite front-page articles in the Houston Chronicle
and opinion pieces explaining his innocence. On the gurney, with the IV
loaded with poison, he blasted the prison personnel who had ordered him to
shave or be disciplined the evening before his execution.
More and more in Texas, prisoners are not going willingly to their
executions, but are fighting until the end. They are also actively
protesting the conditions of severe isolation and torture. The DRIVE
Movement, an activist organization on Texas death row, has held several
hunger strikes in the last year, as have several individuals.
Roy Pippin, who had steadfastly maintained his innocence, was executed on
March 29, after his month-long hunger strike exposing the horrific
conditions on Texas death row won significant media attention.
In his last statement while on the gurney, Pippin said: "I charge the people
of the jury, the trial judge, the prosecutor that cheated to get this
conviction. I charge each and every one of you with the murder of an
innocent man. All the way to the CCA, Federal Court, 5th Circuit and Supreme
Court. You will answer to your Maker when God has found out that you
executed an innocent man. May God have mercy on you. ... Go ahead, Warden,
murder me. Jesus, take me home."
Last summer, Michael Johnson, another Texas prisoner who had always
maintained his innocence, slashed his own throat rather than let the state
kill him. Before he bled to death, he wrote on the wall of his cell in his
own blood, "I did not kill that man."
In November 2006, after Willie Shannon was executed, he was laid in his
casket dressed as a Black Panther, a reflection of his politics. He was a
member of Panthers United for Revolutionary Education-PURE-
Executions in the United States have dropped to the lowest levels in 10
years. The number of death sentences and the population of death row are
also decreasing. For the first time ever, the Gallup Poll has reported that
more people favor life in prison without parole over the death penalty.
During the 1990s there were about 300 death sentences given each year. Now
the number is around 125. Even in Texas, death sentences are down 65 percent
from 10 years ago.
Because of the issue of innocence, juries are less willing to condemn
someone to die. Over a dozen states have halted executions due to innocence
and also the rising evidence that the method of lethal injection kills
prisoners while they are still conscious. The New Jersey legislature had a
hearing scheduled for early May that could end lead to that state ending the
In recent years, a number of major newspapers have changed their position on
the death penalty and are now calling for its abolition. In the past month,
both the Chicago Tribune and the Dallas Morning News reversed their
longstanding support for capital punishment. And the Sentinel of
Pennsylvania simply called the death penalty "useless."
Amnesty International reported that executions worldwide fell by more than
25 percent last year, down from 2,148 in 2005 to 1,591 in 2006. Of all known
executions that took place in 2006, 91 percent were carried out in six
countries: China, Iran, Pakistan, Iraq, Sudan and the United States.
Over half the world's countries have abolished the death penalty in law or
In the United States, the death penalty is used mainly in the former
slave-holding states of the old Confederacy. Between 85 percent and 90
percent of all U.S. executions take place in the South. This is no accident.
Racism plays such a huge role in the death penalty because it is a direct
outgrowth of the legacy of slavery and lynchings.
During the last 125 years there have been thousands of illegal,
extra-judicial lynchings in the United States, primarily in the South,
primarily done by whites against Blacks. The majority took place in the late
1800s and the first half of the 1900s.
Today, in the 21st century, it is the era of legal lynchings.
They are still carried out mainly by whites and used mainly against people
of color. Ninety-eight percent of all district attorneys in the United
States are white, and only 1 percent is Black. It is these district
attorneys who decide whether a defendant will face the death penalty.
States that sentence the most people to death also are the states that had
the most illegal lynchings in the past, according to a study released in
2002 by sociologists at Ohio State University.
The one factor that most determines whether a defendant will be sentenced to
death is the race of the person killed. Even though Black and white people
are murdered in nearly equal numbers, 80 percent of people executed since
the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 had cases involving white victims.
Only 14 white people have ever been executed for the murder of a Black
person, while 215 Black people have been executed for killing whites.
Conversely, white women represent only 0.8 percent of murder victims-yet 35
percent of those executed since 1976 were sentenced to die for killing a
The over-all picture of capital punishment shows nationality involved at
every turn. If a white person is murdered, whether the defendants are Black
or white, they are at least five times more likely to be given the death
penalty than if a Black person is murdered.
African Americans are the least likely to serve on capital juries but the
most likely to be condemned to die.
In Texas, racism in the criminal justice system was openly practiced until
recently. Defense attorneys in Dallas remember that until the mid-1980s
so-called Black-on-Black murders were known around the courthouse as
"misdemeanor murder." Attorney Fred Tinsley reported in 2000, "At one point,
with a Black-on-Black murder, you could get it dismissed if the defendant
would just pay funeral expenses."
The U.S. Supreme Court twice found the method of jury selection in Dallas
unconstitutional. In response, Dallas District Attorney Henry Wade developed
a system of training prosecutors to excuse people of color, women, Jews and
those physically disabled.
Wade reprimanded a prosecutor in the late 1950s for allowing a Black woman
on a jury, telling him, "If you ever put another n---r on a jury, you're
An African American, Thomas Miller-El, was sentenced to death in Dallas in
1986. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered that he be retried because all
African Americans except for one were excluded from his jury. He is now at
the Dallas County Jail awaiting a new trial.
In Philadelphia, where political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal was sentenced to
death, the odds of receiving a death sentence are 38 percent higher in cases
in which the defendant is Black. In fact, in Pennsylvania, over 70 percent
of those on death row are African American; this is the highest proportion
in the country.
The United States is a little over 225 years old. It was built on land
stolen from the Indigenous peoples and Mexico, and on the backs of African
slave labor. It became highly industrialized during the last hundred years
and today is the leading imperialist power because it exploits its large
working class, a growing proportion of whom are African American, Latin@,
Arab, Asian and Native American.
National oppression and racism is so tightly woven into the fabric of life
in this country that it colors all aspects of life from birth to death,
including death at the hands of the state.
"The movement to abolish the death penalty is growing and learning that if
executions are to end, we must be a movement of all peoples, particularly
those of us who make up the majority on death row. No change has ever come
willingly. We must fight for it. But with unity and struggle we will see the
end of this crime called capital punishment," said Njeri Shakur, a leader of
the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement for over a decade.
Source : Workers World (The writer is a long-time organizer with the TDPAM)