It’s Time to Get Real About Race and the Death Penalty

By Andy Hoover, Legislative Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

SQ Lethal Injection Room

Two weeks ago, Governor Wolf announced a moratorium on executions in Pennsylvania and granted a reprieve from execution to Terrance Williams, who was scheduled to be executed on March 4. Wolf will continue granting reprieves- a power he is granted by law – until an analysis commissioned by the state Senate returns with its recommendations and “all concerns are addressed satisfactorily.”

In his announcement of the moratorium, Wolf referred to capital punishment as “unjust” and cited several reasons for using the word. In his memorandum that explained the moratorium, he spent several paragraphs discussing the role of race in capital punishment.

Death penalty abolitionists don’t use race as one of their top tier messages, and who can blame them? A 2007 survey found that support for capital punishment actually goes up when white respondents hear messages of racial disparity. White America is still sticking its collective fingers in its ears when it comes to race and the criminal justice system.

Pennsylvania has consistently shown a penchant for sentencing black defendants to death. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, of the 188 people on death row in the commonwealth, 120 of them, or 64 percent, are people of color, as of October 1, 2014. Over the 15 years that I have been involved in death penalty repeal work, that number has been as high as 70 percent.

A study by Professor David Baldus and his colleagues at the University of Iowa found that a black defendant in Philadelphia was 3.9 times more likely to receive a death sentence than a white defendant in a similar case.

The Baldus study was 17 years ago and was based on data from 1983 to 1993. As part of the Senate-supported analysis, researchers are trying to update the question of race and the death penalty in Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, according to one of my sources, at least one high-profile district attorney stymied that work for months by refusing to release data from his county on race in capital cases. He was ultimately persuaded but only after much cajoling. Some public officials just don’t want to talk about facts in the death penalty debate.

The race of the victim may play an even greater role in deciding who lives and who dies. Homicide victims are white in about 50 percent cases. But since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, the victims were white in 76 percent of cases that ended in execution.

There are many reasons why capital punishment is slowly being swept into the dustbin of history. Since 2007, six states have repealed their death penalty statutes, bringing the total of non-death states to 18. In 2014, only seven states carried out executions, and 80 percent of those were in three states. Governor Wolf did the right thing in bringing a halt to the machinery of death, and he used the right word to describe it- unjust.

To learn more about the debate over Pennsylvania’s moratorium on executions, check out the discussion on WITF-FM’s Smart Talk, which featured Spero Lappas, who is a member of the ACLU of PA’s South Central Chapter board, a retired criminal defense attorney, and former cooperating counsel with ACLU-PA.

Andy Hoover is the legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania and is the former chair of the board of Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

This blog post is part of a series for Black History Month.

What Happened In Oklahoma

By Marc Bookman, Director, Atlantic Center for Capital Representation

Clayton Lockett

Clayton Lockett (photo via http://www.christianpost.com/)

The number one rule of the Internet is never read the comments. If you broke this rule over the last week, you might have seen the following in relation to the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma:

  • 1) “if his lawyers were so concerned about the execution method failing perhaps they should have considered shooting him then burying him alive. it (sic) worked for his victim.”
  • 2)“I will do it for free ….I won’t use a single tax payer dollar…Drop him off and come back in 5 minutes to pick up his body ….I am scared to think of the links (sic) I would go to if that were my family member..”
  • 3) “Get a rope.”

In short, these are the folks who believe that our community should act just like the murderers we condemn. It’s enough to make you remember the penetrating question asked by that greatest and most imaginary of West Wing occupants, Jed Bartlet: “These people don’t vote, do they?” More on that in a minute. What’s important to keep in mind is that “these people” aren’t us – for the overwhelming majority in this country, the events of the past weeks in Oklahoma were horrifying in their unpredictability, their arrogance, and their outcome. Let’s take the concepts one at a time.

If there is a single word that must be included in the description of a constitutionally satisfactory execution, it is “predictable.” And yet Oklahoma authorities went to extremes to guarantee that anything might happen: they used an untested combination of drugs, they refused to reveal where they had been obtained, and they fought all efforts by the defense to find out how the drugs had been made. (And Oklahoma is far from alone in this effort – in Georgia, a law is now in place declaring all information about lethal injection a “confidential state secret.” Texas, where the next execution in the United States is scheduled for May 13th, has also recently reversed course and now maintains that the details of the killing protocol are not the condemned man’s business.) When anything can happen, eventually it will.

The Oklahoma courts struggled with this regime of secrecy. They also struggled to decide whether the state supreme court or the court of criminal appeals had jurisdiction over the issue, a strange circumstance indeed considering the fact that the state has conducted well more than 100 executions in the modern era. After spending a week acting like petulant children fighting over the portions of dessert, the Oklahoma Supreme Court eventually stayed Lockett’s execution, along with a second execution scheduled shortly thereafter, that of Charles Warner. This infuriated every other branch of the Oklahoma government. First, the state attorney general asked the Supreme Court to reconsider. When the Court quickly rejected the request, Governor Mary Fallin issued an executive order declaring that she could overrule the Supreme Court, and announced that the executions would take place two hours apart on the night of April 29th. While her authority to do so was being questioned by every law professor in the United States, a member of the Oklahoma legislature drafted a resolution to impeach the justices of the Oklahoma Supreme Court who had ordered the stay of the execution. That’s when the Court caved, dissolved its stay, and allowed the executions to proceed. As the old song goes, it doesn’t take a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing.

The night of April 29th won’t soon be forgotten by the witnesses to Clayton Lockett’s execution. Seven minutes into the execution, prison officials checked to see if Mr. Lockett was unconscious – “I’m not,” Lockett said. Three minutes later, he was declared unconscious; six minutes after that, Lockett said “man” and tried to lift himself off the gurney. All the while Lockett’s body had been writhing, his mouth twitching. 16 minutes after the execution began, a prison official stated, “We are going to lower the blinds temporarily,” a phrase that Andrew Cohen of The Atlantic aptly noted might serve as an epitaph for the entire sequence of events that had led to this debacle. Lockett’s execution was then stayed by the state officials who were present, but he died of a heart attack 30 minutes later. As the lawyer for Warner described it, he was “tortured to death.” Another lawyer called the execution a “human science experiment.” As for Charles Warner, his execution has been delayed for several weeks while Oklahoma conducts an investigation into what went wrong. Governor Fallin has already gotten the investigation off to a bad start by assigning the inquiry to the state’s public safety commissioner, who answers directly to…Governor Fallin.

What we are left with is the specter of government secrecy in our most public of government spectacles, the subversion of the rule of law by elected state officials, and the horror of an execution that would have been condemned had it occurred before our constitution was even written. At the very least, the events in Oklahoma should be yet one more reason for hesitation in Pennsylvania – indeed, two days after the botched execution, all of the candidates in the democratic primary for governor announced their support for a moratorium on the death penalty. And as to that first question: do “these people” vote? It’s not really the right question. As an old client of mine liked to say, one thing is for sure and two things are for certain – we had better vote. Because the community gets the government it deserves, and we surely deserve better than what the Oklahoma government has delivered.

Marc Bookman is the Director of Atlantic Center for Capital Representation, a non-profit death penalty resource center serving Pennsylvania and Delaware.