The dual executions of Troy Anthony Davis and Lawrence Russell Brewer on Wednesday night raise pressing questions about why Black death row inmates face greater disparities in capital punishment.
Wednesday night will be remembered, by many, not as simply the night of Sept. 21, but also as the night of two high-profile executions.
The first execution was of Lawrence Russell Brewer, a white supremacist gang member sentenced to death for the 1998 murder of James Byrd Jr., a black man from East Texas. Byrd, 49, was chained to the back of a pickup truck and violently dragged to his death along a bumpy asphalt road in Jasper, Texas. It would be known as one of the most grisly hate crimes in modern history.
Brewer gave no final statement as he was executed on Wednesday night.
The second was of Troy Anthony Davis, who was executed for the 1989 murder of off-duty police officer Mark MacPhail in Savannah, Georgia. The case was contentious and widely reported, as Davis’s defense said that there was too much doubt over whether Davis actually committed the crime. Several witnesses who placed Davis at the crime scene and identified him as the shooter have recanted their accounts and some jurors have said they've changed their minds about his guilt. Others have claimed a man who was with Davis that night has since told people that he actually shot the officer. Davis, who maintained his innocence until the end, had garnered support from private citizens, celebrities and human rights agencies from around the world.
Two death row inmates, executed on the same night — that is where the similarities end. Where the cases diverge is in a new set of questions, revealed by the comparative examination of those cases, that beg to be answered, about the role of race in capital punishment.
According to a 2007 study from Ohio State University, Blacks who kill whites are not only more likely to be sentenced to death row, but are also more likely to be executed.
"There is more than a two-fold greater risk that an African-American who killed a white person will be executed than there is for a white person who killed a non-white victim," writes the study.
“The fact that blacks who kill non-whites actually are less likely to be executed than blacks who kill whites shows there is a strong racial bias here,” said David Jacobs, co-author of the study, in the report. “Blacks are most likely to pay the ultimate price when their victims are white.”
A 2003 report from the American Civil Liberties Union echoes those findings: “The color of a defendant and victim's skin plays a crucial and unacceptable role in deciding who receives the death penalty in America. People of color have accounted for a disproportionate 43% of total executions since 1976 and 55% of those currently awaiting execution. A moratorium of the death penalty is necessary to address the blatant prejudice in our application of the death penalty.”
Presenting another facet to the debate are the contrasting reactions from family members in both cases.
The family of James Byrd, a Black man, took a decidedly gentler stance, saying that they didn’t seek capital punishment for Byrd’s violent death.
“You can't fight murder with murder," Ross Byrd, 32, the son of James Byrd Jr., told Reuters late Tuesday. "Life in prison would have been fine. I know he can't hurt my daddy anymore. I wish the state would take in mind that this isn't what we want."
As the family of Troy Davis prayed for a miracle outside the jail in Jackson, Georgia, the family of Mark MacPhail, the white off-duty officer Davis he was convicted of killing 22 years ago, expressed contentment that they had finally found justice.
"He had all the chances in the world," his mother, Anneliese MacPhail, said of Davis in a telephone interview to the Associated Press. "It has got to come to an end."
Davis' execution had been stopped three times since 2007.
Anneliese MacPhail told the AP that the feelings of relief and peace she has been waiting for all these years will come later. She said she was numb as of Wednesday night.
MacPhail's widow, Joan MacPhail-Harris, said that it's now a time for healing for all families. She says she will grieve for the Davis family.
As all parties move toward the healing process, it is uncertain if and how American lawmakers will interpret what these landmark convictions mean for Blacks on death row.