Saturday, 15 August 2009

Savannah Talks Troy Anthony Davis No. 5: Race, Death, and Justice in America

Although not directed specifically at the case of Georgia death row inmate Troy Anthony Davis and slain policeman Mark Allen MacPhail, the state of North Carolina’s new Racial Justice Act, signed into law by Governor Beverly Perdue on August 11, 2009, shines a light on one of the major aspects of the Davis/MacAllen case: that of race and the death penalty.

When reviewing such elements as the lack of physical evidence linked directly to Davis, and the fact that seven out of nine testimonies initially filed against him have since been recanted, various observers have voiced concern over whether the only reason he has not yet been granted a second trial is because Davis is African American and Officer MacPhail was White American.

Significantly, Governor Perdue is in fact a supporter of the death penalty itself. However, she notes in the following statement an important distinction between employing capital punishment and achieving justice:

"I have always been a supporter of [the] death penalty, but I have always believed it must be carried out fairly. The Racial Justice Act ensures that when North Carolina hands down our state’s harshest punishment to our most heinous criminals – the decision is based on the facts and the law, not racial prejudice.”

Simply put, the new law will allow death-row inmates and pre-trial defendants to use statistical studies to challenge racial bias in the death penalty system. This would give prosecutors a chance “to rebut the claim that the statistical disparities indicate racial bias. If proven, a judge could overturn the death sentence or prevent prosecutors from seeking the death penalty.”

Looking at the Numbers

Like Georgia––where Savannah native Davis sits on death row in the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison––North Carolina is one 38 states that still employ capital punishment. According to the NAACP’s “Death Row U.S.A Winter 2009” report, and figures maintained by the Death Penalty Information Center, some 88 Blacks (53%) out of a total of 167 inmates currently occupy death row in North Carolina. In Georgia, Troy Anthony Davis represents 1 of 51 Blacks (47%) on death row out of a total of 109 inmates. The fact that African Americans have consistently made up a disproportionate percentage of inmates on death row nationwide in glaring contrast to the percentage of Blacks that make up the general American public––13.5%––has long disturbed social scientists, law makers, and critics of capital punishment n general.

To Quote Alex Haley

Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II, of the NAACP, during the signing of the Racial Justice Act issued a statement in which he observed:

“Today on August 11th, Alex Haley, the author of Roots was born. One of his famous quotes was ‘either we deal with reality or reality will deal with us.’ This Racial Justice Act is not about trying to let criminals go as some have absurdly suggested. It does not open up old wounds for victims because both proponents and opponents support the Racial Justice Act as well as families who have been victims of horrendous murders. Anyone who uses this language to speak against the bill is wrongfully maligning a good piece of legislation which looks squarely at the reality and the empirical data which shows how race impacts the application of the death penalty.”

The signing of the Racial Justice Act comes only a week before the twentieth anniversary of the slaying of Officer MacPhail and a month before the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to reconvene; after which, at some point, it will decide whether or not Davis shall receive a new trial. Perhaps it is safe to say at this point that North Carolina just made the possibility of that trial a little stronger.

Thank you for reading this fifth installment of Savannah Talks Troy Davis, a series of articles examining the ongoing developments and implications of the Troy Anthony Davis/Mark Allen MacPhail case.


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