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When will our Government -- our Governor, Council of State, Legislature, Criminal Justice System, and the Courts -- face the facts that every thinking person knows are true? Our criminal justice system discriminates against Black men.
Just a few weeks ago another Black man barely escaped execution by our State Government because of gross mistakes and prejudice in our criminal “justice” system. That makes three North Carolina Black men in the past five months who, but for the grace of God, would have been wrongly executed in our name.
How long will we let these injustices in our name continue? When will we say Enough?
Must we expose wrongful convictions, wrongful appellate decisions, wasted decades on death row for Black men every month? Every week? When will we say Enough?
The NAACP lawyer who broke the color line on the U.S. Supreme Court only two score years ago, Justice Thurgood Marshall, wrote: "No matter how careful courts are, the possibility of perjured testimony, mistaken honest testimony, and human error remain all too real. We have no way of judging how many innocent persons have been executed, but we can be certain that there were some."
Justice Marshall was mincing his words. I will not. There is a built-in stereotype in the criminal justice system that works against Black men. Hysterical public opinion, whipped up by the media, dictates that there are some cases in which the State is pressured to find a perpetrator -- any perpetrator. In Wilson, in 2004, the State relied upon the perjured testimony of a troubled young man and almost put James Johnson on trial for his life. It held James in jail for 39 months, trying to wear him and his lawyers down to plead guilty to crimes James did not commit. Fortunately James and his family found the strength to hold on until, finally, the State admitted it had been “mistaken.”
In the past six months, three of the four human beings freed from death rows across the country shortly before they were due to be executed are Black men from North Carolina. There, but for the Grace of God, go I. Since the death penalty was reinstated nationally in 1976, there have been 129 human beings who, on the eves of their executions in their respective States, have been found not guilty and freed. I don’t believe it is a mere coincidence that three out of the last four, Numbers 126, 128 and 129 in the Death Penalty Information Center’s (DPIC) long list, are victims of the North Carolina criminal justice system. These three children of God are now free, after spending over a dozen of their most productive years on death row. Here are summaries of their encounters with North Carolina’s criminal justice system, thanks to the DPIC:
126. Jonathon Hoffman The State of North Carolina, acting in our name, convicted Mr. Hoffman in 1995. After 12 years on death row, the State dismissed all charges against Mr. Hoffman on Dec. 11, 2007. He won a new trial in 2004 because information favorable to him had not been disclosed to his lawyers, the judge, or the jury during his trial. The prosecutor made a deal with the main witness against Hoffman that federal charges against him would be dropped if he testified against Hoffman. The witness later recanted his false testimony.
128. Glen Edward Chapman The State of North Carolina, acting in our name, convicted Mr. Chapman in 1994. After 14 years on death row, the State dismissed all charges against Mr.Chapman on April 2, 2008. Chapman was sentenced to death for the 1992 murders of Betty Jean Ramseur and Tenene Yvette Conley. In 2007, Superior Court Judge Robert C. Ervin granted Chapman a new trial, citing withheld evidence, “lost, misplaced or destroyed” documents, the use of weak, circumstantial evidence, false testimony by the lead investigator, and ineffective assistance of defense counsel. There was new information from a forensic pathologist that raised doubts as to whether Conley’s death was a homicide or caused by an overdose of drugs. Judge Ervin found fault with Chapman’s defense attorneys at the original trial in 1994, one of whom has been disciplined by the North Carolina State Bar. The other lawyer drank 12 shots of alcohol a day during another death penalty trial. His client during that trial, Ronald Frye, was executed in 2001.
129. Levon "Bo" Jones The State of North Carolina, acting in our name, convicted Mr. Jones in 1993. After 15 years on death row, the State dismissed all charges against Mr. Jones on May 2, 2008. Two years ago the U.S. District Court overturned Jones's conviction or robbing and shooting a bootlegger, but the Duplin prosecutor held him in jail for two more years until releasing him. The U.S. Court found Jones' lawyers were "constitutionally deficient" in defending him at trial, noting they failed to research the history and credibility of the prosecution's star witness. The Court found: "Given the weakness of the prosecution's case and its heavy reliance on the testimony of Lovely Lorden, there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different." In April 2008, Jones's new lawyers filed an affidavit in which Lorden said a detective coached her on what to say, she collected $4,000 from the governor's office for offering the clues that led to the arrest of Jones, and that "Much of what I testified to was simply not true." D.A. Dewey Hudson dropped all charges 10 days before the trial was due to begin in the May, 2008.
The Criminal Justice Sub-System for Black Men
There are two criminal justice systems in the United States. One for the rich. One for the poor. The one for the poor has a sub-system for the poor Black man because his life is not worth as much as a poor White man to many people in the criminal justice system. He is seen as a “scumbag.” If the Black man is accused of killing a White person, the prosecutor uses the death penalty and the prospect of a virtually all-white jury to bargain for his life. The Black defendant and his lawyers know that he has a slim chance before such a jury which has been taught since childhood to be afraid of him.
Death Penalty Is Part of a Biased System
I'm against the death penalty because I am a Christian. I can find no New Testament license for embracing death. Death is the antithesis to our faith. Jesus—the light and hope and founder of our Faith--was killed by capital punishment. How can I embrace, how can we embrace the systemic instrument used against Jesus and many of his followers? How can we embrace this system of vengeance and retaliation, when Jesus never sought death as retaliation for what was done to Him.
I did not learn this from ivory towers and philosophical debates. I learned it in the trenches of pastoral work. The first death I presided over was the death of a young college coed in Raleigh. Her parents were members of a church I presided over in Virginia. They showed me the way. They made the Word we preach about love and forgiveness come alive in flesh. Despite the hurt and hellish nature of what had been done to them, they made it clear they did not want their daughter’s murderer to suffer the penalty of death.
I met this issue again, while teaching ethics at Wesleyan College. As my class debated the pros and cons of the death penalty a young white student testified of her family's suffering and her family's witness for life.
When reporters ask me, “Rev. Barber, Where is your concern for the victim of a violent murder?” I reply, “My faith does not allow me to care about the victim and not care about the perpetrator. Nor does it allow me to care about the perpetrator and not care about the victim."
This is the strangeness of Christian love; it does not allow schizophrenic compassion. It is this strange Christian love that African American people have had for parts of this country for years, in spite of the horrendous violence heaped upon us.
Paul wrote from his prison cells, back to the church, back to the people of faith, while serving a death sentence, declaring that he was praying for them to have all of the strength, endurance, and patience they needed for the long journey of faith.
We Still Need Strength for the Long Journey
Families who have had the terrible experience of having a loved one taking someone else's life; those families need strength for the journey. They need strength to repent where maybe their love one has not repented. They need strength to embrace family members' victimized by their family members. Families who know their loved ones have been wrongly convicted or wrongly charged by a broken criminal justice system, like the families of Darryl Hunt, the families of Alan Gell, the families of Glen Chapman, the families of James Johnson, the families of Bo Jones, the families of Jonathan Hoffman. They need strength to keeping hoping, to keep fighting for the truth.
We all need strength for the journey to go up against a system which will cover itself at all cost. We know the system creates un-thinking, un-caring people who engage in prosecutorial misconduct. We need strength to keep presenting our case before the powers that be. We need strength to raise high the call: Repeal the death penalty.
We need strength to keep pouring out the undeniable facts that African Americans disproportionately are sentenced with the death penalty, which means it has a racist application. And that poor people in general disproportionately receive the death penalty which means its application is another form of classism. We need strength to continue to challenge the fear of politicians have of the ultra-right which, which threatens to brand them soft on crime if they take the righteous and moral position that the death penalty should be ended. Thank you.
Join With Us in this Journey
The NAACP was founded almost 100 years ago to stop the lynching of Black Men in the South. The NAACP has always recognized the deeply embedded racial prejudice within the criminal justice system, and has worked diligently to bring that fact into the hearts of people of good will throughout the society. In the past three years, the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP has led a mighty coalition of over 85 organizations and churches in two Historic Thousands on Jones Street (HK on J) events, to put before the Legislators who meet on Jones Street our People’s Agenda. High on that Agenda is the Repeal of the Death Penalty in North Carolina.
This May and June, 2008, the Legislature will consider the Racial Justice Act, that passed the House last year. It is a key aspect of our efforts to Repeal the Death Penalty. We will be bringing hundreds of grassroots volunteer people’s lobbyists to Jones Street on May 28th, to remind their legislators they should vote for the Racial Justice Act.
You don’t need to come to Jones Street. Just call your local NAACP Branch, and find out how to call your legislators in your home district, and let them know how you want them to represent you.
If you are not a member of your local NAACP Branch, we welcome you to join. The NAACP, a multi-racial organization, has led the fight to rid our society of racial discrimination and hatred for 99 years. Join now. You can call our State office on its toll free number, for more information about your Local Branch, the People of Color Lobbying Day, and how to persuade your legislator to vote for the Racial Justice Act. Thank you.