For some on death row, vindication comes too late

Tacoma News TribuneMarch 14, 2014 

Immediately following Gov. Jay Inslee’s announcement of his moratorium on the death penalty, cheers could be heard in certain African-American communities throughout the state and elsewhere.

That should have surprised few, considering the statistics on who is being sentenced to occupy space on death rows these days. Nationally, 470 African Americans have been executed since 1976 compared to 767 whites — although African Americans are only 13 percent of the nation’s population. Sixty-six whites and seven African Americans have been executed in Washington; the African-American population in this state reached 3.9 percent only in recent decades.

Racial discrimination remains a dominant feature of criminal justice in the United States. The process of having biased death sentences handed down in the criminal justice system may not always be the fault of sentencing officials; the outcome involves arresting officers, the compiling and arranging of factual evidence by prosecuting attorneys, and jury selection, all of which are required before a judgment is reached.

People of color continue to be excluded from jury service in our state because of their race, especially in serious criminal trials and death penalty cases. The jury-selection process has been a major concern in Washington’s African-American community for decades owing to how jurors are selected and the fact that race in trials is often a factor — consciously or unconsciously.

Most juries hearing capital cases where African Americans are involved have few or no African Americans. As the case moves along a path toward the judge, there are unlimited opportunities for biases. Mandatory sentencing may also enter into the equation in some states.

Regardless of whether Inslee’s moratorium was a wise political decision, claims that the death penalty is an effective crime deterrent have not been proven. This experiment is flawed, inhuman and costly.

An increasing number of states have already legally ended executions, with others likely to follow this year. Human lives are at stake, and one would think that any process holding such high risks and vulnerabilities would be completely abolished in modern society.

Too many people found guilty of capital crimes and placed on death row in the last decade were later found to have been wrongly convicted. Others have been exonerated posthumously. Some were sentenced to death and had their sentences overturned by acquittal or pardon.

Just this week, Louisiana freed Glenn Ford, a man who had spent nearly 26 years on death row. An all-white jury convicted him for a murder the state now says he did not commit.

One who was not so fortunate was Troy Anthony Davis, an African-American man convicted of and executed for the murder of a police officer Savannah, Ga., though there was ample evidence presented to prove his innocence. The NAACP’s struggle to save him failed. We must work to ensure that this tragedy is not repeated here in Washington. Inslee’s moratorium provides that guarantee.

Oscar Eason Jr. is chairman of the Washington State Commission on African American Affairs.

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