The color of justice

Derrick Z. Jackson

October 10, 1991|By Derrick Z. Jackson

In MARYLAND, Damon Bowie is alive. In Georgia, Robert McCleskey is dead. In Maryland, justice was served. In Georgia, it was denied. The connection between the death penalty and the color of one's skin remains a straight line.

Bowie is 21. Last year, he was sentenced to death for his alleged part in the 1989 murder of two restaurant workers in Prince George's County. Three weeks ago, the Maryland Court of Appeals threw out the guilty verdict and the sentence.

The court ruled that during the selection process, potential jurors were not asked questions that could have exposed racial prejudice. One of the murder victims and those who were wounded were white. Most of the witnesses were white. Bowie is African American. The potential jurors were not asked if they would find police testimony more credible than civilian testimony. One of the wounded was an off-duty officer.

None of this means Bowie will necessarily escape execution or a life sentence. He is still charged with shooting two workers in the back of the head at close range while taking a few hundred dollars. The point is that the Maryland Court of Appeals understood that a jury can rush unfairly to hand the death penalty to an African American.

There was no such understanding in Georgia. Nearly two weeks ago McCleskey, another African American, was put to death in the electric chair. McCleskey was one of four people who tried to rob an Atlanta furniture store in 1978. A police officer was shot and killed.

In 1987, defense lawyers argued before the Supreme Court that Georgia's death penalty was racist and unconstitutional. In Georgia, African Americans who kill white Americans were 11 times more likely to be executed than white people who kill African Americans. Since 1973, 11 of the 15 people executed have been African American. Of the 15 cases, white people were the victims in 13.

Most notorious is the judicial circuit around Columbus, Ga., which has issued more death sentences than any other Georgia district. Sixty-five percent of the murder victims since 1973 have been African American. But of cases where the district attorney sought the death penalty, 85 percent involved white victims.

Of all potential death penalty cases, the DA sought the death penalty 34.3 percent of the time when the victim was white.

When the victim was African American, he sought the death penalty only 5.8 percent of the time. Nationally, the first execution of a white man for the slaying of an African American since 1944 happened just last month.

The conservative Supreme Court was unmoved. It upheld McCleskey's sentence. In April, the court ruled on the McCleskey case again. The witness who said McCleskey claimed to fire the fatal shot turned out to be a police informant who allegedly had his charges dropped.

Two of the jurors who gave McCleskey the death sentence said they now would have not done so. Juror Robert Burnette said that "it would have been a hung jury."

This was of no relevance to a Supreme Court dedicated to frying the accused. It upheld the sentence and used the case to limit the number of appeals a death-row inmate can make. In his dissent, retiring Justice Thurgood Marshall said the ruling "encourages state officials to conceal evidence." Georgia State Attorney Mike Bowers was so ecstatic in getting rid of McCleskey that he said, "This guy has been to the Supreme Court twice and appealed for 13 years, and that's too long."

No time is too long if there is a chance someone might be innocent. McCleskey admitted taking part in the robbery, but not the shooting. He was already doing serious time. He should have also lived, as sure as Bowie.

The death penalty should be abolished for the simple fact that it allows no opportunity to rectify a mistake. Its political application makes it that much more an open sore. The wheels of justice roll with speedy force when the victim is white. The steamroller of miscarriage aims most accurately at African Americans.

Derrick Z. Jackson is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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