Death Row Injustice

Revolutionary Worker #1041, February 6, 2000

"The feeling is emotionally choking. It's inhuman. It's something that shouldn't be imaginable. Here are people who are supposed to uphold the law who are breaking it."

Dennis Williams, speaking about
how it felt to be sentenced to death
for a crime he did not commit.

Dennis Williams spent 18 years behind bars in Illinois, almost all of it on death row. He was convicted for the 1978 murder of a couple in Ford Heights, a suburb of Chicago. The so-called evidence against him at the trial included testimony from a jailhouse snitch who got favorable treatment for cooperating with police and prosecutors. He was "defended" by an incompetent attorney who was later disbarred. Williams, a Black man, was given the death penalty by an all-white jury.

In 1996, Dennis Williams finally walked out of prison after his conviction was reversed because new DNA evidence showed conclusively that he was innocent. But the "justice" system had stolen 18 years of his life--years spent locked up in cramped prison cells, with the threat of the execution chamber always over his head.

In 1998, Dennis Williams attended a conference that brought together victims of wrongful death penalty convictions, their lawyers and anti-death penalty activists. "Had the state of Illinois gotten its way," Williams told the conference, "I'd be dead today."

The story of what happened to Dennis Williams is outrageous in itself. But he is one among many people in Illinois who have had their death sentences reversed. Williams was convicted along with three other men--Kenneth Adams, Willie Raines and Verneal Jimerson. Known as the Ford Heights Four, they collectively spent 65 years in prison for a crime they did not commit.

In Illinois as a whole, over half of the 260 death penalty cases that have gone into the appeals process since 1977 (when the state reinstated the death penalty) have been reversed.

In March of last year, Anthony Porter had his 1983 death sentence overturned--only hours before his scheduled execution. Porter had lost all his appeals, but investigation by a journalism class at Northwestern University uncovered evidence of his innocence.

And in the latest case, a law professor and his students at Chicago-Kent College of Law said they uncovered evidence that death-row inmate Edgar Hope did not commit the 1982 murder that he was convicted of.

The large number of reversals of death sentences has become so exposing for the authorities that on January 29, Illinois Governor George Ryan was forced to announce a temporary moratorium on executions in the state.

In the U.S. as a whole, eight innocent people were released from death row in 1999--bringing the number of death row inmates exonerated and let out of prison since 1973 to 84. How many more people are sitting on death row today because of wrongful convictions? How many innocent people have already been executed?

The figures for wrongful convictions point to the deep injustice of death penalty, USA. But, at the same time, the power structure of this country continues its sinister drive to execute more prisoners, more quickly, more mercilessly.

Last year, 98 people were executed--a 44 percent increase the previous year. A major factor in the rising pace of executions is the 1996 "Effective Death Penalty" law signed by Clinton, which made it much harder for death row prisoners to appeal their cases in the federal courts.

Even before Clinton reached the White House seven years ago, he made his pro-death penalty position very clear. He made a point of interrupting his presidential campaign and returning to Arkansas (where he was the governor at the time) to refuse clemency for Ricky Ray Rector--a Black mentally impaired man who faced execution. Rector's understanding of his situation was so limited that he left the dessert from his final meal before the execution and told the guards to "save it for later."

By next year, Clinton may very well be replaced in the White House by George W. Bush. As governor of Texas, Bush heads up a state government that put to death more prisoners than the next four highest executing states combined. Bush has overseen about one execution every two weeks during his term. Last June, Bush signed his 100th death warrant.

In January, Texas executed Glen McGinnis, who was 17 at the time of the murder for which he received the death sentence. A few days later, Larry Robison received a lethal injection. He had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic long before the murders he was convicted of--but his family was too poor to get him the needed medical treatment.

As for the Democrats, the current head of the party's National Committee is Ed Rendell--who used to be a key figure in the Philadelphia power structure. Over half of the death row inmates in Pennsylvania come from this one city alone--and 80 percent of them are Black. One of those on Pennsylvania's death row is Black political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal. As Philadelphia District Attorney in the early 1980s, Rendell was a central part of the city's "killer elite" which was behind the railroad of Mumia. In his current position, Rendell would be in charge of this year's Democratic presidential campaign.

Clearly, the push for the death penalty is promoted from the highest levels of this country's ruling class. There are now about 3,500 people on death row across the country--and the number continues to grow. According to Amnesty International, "The USA has the highest known death row population on earth."

The use of the death penalty is a concentrated expression of the racism and national oppression that Black people face in this country. Close to 40 percent of executed prisoners are Black--while Black people make up 12 percent of the U.S. population. Nearly half of all murder victims in the U.S. are Black--but 83 percent of the people receiving capital punishment were convicted and executed for killing a white person. In Philadelphia, the odds of receiving a death penalty are nearly four times higher for Black people than white people.

A few days before William Henry Hance was executed in 1994, one of the jurors who was part of the trial that sentenced him said she first voted against death--but was intimidated by other jurors into changing her vote. The prosecutor had excluded all but one Black juror from the jury. And another juror said that several jurors made racist remarks about Hance, such as referring to him as "one more sorry n****r that no one would miss."

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, "Race is more likely to affect death sentencing than smoking affects the likelihood of dying from heart disease." Or, as Mumia wrote from his death row cell, "You will find a blacker world on death row than anywhere else."

Government officials justify their rush to execute by quoting opinion polls saying that the majority of people favor capital punishment. Politicians, right-wing groups and the media cynically whip up talk of "victims' rights" to push for more jails and more executions. Prosecutors manipulate families of victims and use them to argue for death sentences and harsher prison terms.

But there can be no justice in calling for this government to carry out the ultimate punishment. The death penalty is a weapon of the oppressors against the people. As RCP Chairman Bob Avakian points out: "Communists oppose the use of the death penalty by the bourgeois state because this will be used overwhelmingly against people from the oppressed masses and will be wielded to reinforce the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, fortifying its repressive apparatus and forging a more repressive political atmosphere which, again, will be overwhelmingly directed against the oppressed masses and those who oppose the status quo."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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