With the call for a moratorium on executions gaining momentum, Stephen Bright, founder and executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, reminded a crowd at UNC Law School last week that the U.S. legal system remains a remnant of our nation's segregationist past.
"We all know and it is documented beyond question that a person of color is more likely to be stopped, more likely to be abused during that stop, more likely to be arrested, more likely to be charged with a serious crime, more likely to be charged in an adult court instead of juvenile court, more likely be denied bail, more likely to be convicted, more likely to get a severe sentence, whether that sentence is jail instead of probation or the death penalty instead of life--all the way through the system," said Bright, one of the most celebrated capital defense attorneys in the nation.
Bright has spent much of the past two decades traveling from his Atlanta base throughout the South trying death penalty cases. Bright sees visible signs of integration in local governments, schools and hospitals, "then you go down to the courthouse and it's just like we are back in the 1940s or the 1950s. Every person in front of the bar of the court--even in communities that have substantial African-American populations--is white except for the person who is on trial."
In the South, more than 60 percent of the victims of homicides are African-American, Bright said, yet there are Southern death rows where 80 percent or more of the inmates are condemned for killing whites. In addition, 99 percent of death penalty prosecutors are white.
"If the death penalty is put under any scrutiny at all we will see that all the problems that we have seen throughout our history are still there. ... The death penalty is part of a long history of legalized oppression in our country, of slavery, of lynching. ... The death penalty still is a matter of race, place, inequity and iniquity."
Place: The South accounts for most death sentences, and some prosecutorial districts are more likely to go for the death penalty than others. For example, Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, has sent more people to death row than every state in the nation except Virginia (and Texas).
Inequity: "The kind of trial a person gets depends on the kind of money the person has," Bright said. Bright likened the typical scenario of small-town attorneys who provide defense in complex and difficult capital murder cases to chiropractors being approved to do brain surgery in lieu of available brain surgeons. Several people are on death row or have been executed after their defense lawyers slept through their trials and the courts upheld the sentences.
"Most people know that it is better in our country today to be rich and guilty than to be poor and innocent and that's not equal justice."
Iniquity: "We are giving the death penalty to people who are delusional, people who are paranoid, people who are brain damaged, people who are chemically imbalanced, people who have been abused and neglected, people who are mentally retarded, people who through no fault of their own have been punished all their lives. We are giving the death penalty to people we have sent to Vietnam who have come back with post-traumatic stress syndrome and all sorts of other problems that they might not have had otherwise."
Bright hopes the growing moratorium movement will raise some unresolved questions: "Do we have the courage to wrestle with the moral ambiguities of our system? Do we want a vengeful society, a society that turns its back on its young people and then when they get in trouble executes them? A society that denies its mentally ill treatment ... and then puts them to death when they can no longer keep their demons under control? A society that gives nothing to the victims of crime rather than the opportunity to ask for the death penalty and watch an execution?
"If we ask these questions and if we wrestle with them we will come to the conclusion that capital punishment, I think in this century, like slavery and segregation, is a relic of another era."