Troy Davis’ case may have gotten us all a bit riled up, but the truth is that the situation has happened before and will again if we don’t take action.
Troy Davis didn’t have a chance.
Just two years before his fateful night out on the town with Sylvester "Redd" Coles, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the death sentence of a Black man whose defense provided clear evidence of a history of rampant racial bias in the death sentencing record of the man’s home state of Georgia.
Although the problems with Troy Davis’s conviction focused mainly on the existence of too much doubt in his case, his sentencing also appears to be an issue of race — an issue that Georgia, and the entire nation, has left unresolved for decades, and that likely won’t disappear anytime soon.
The story of McClesky v. Kemp rings eerily familiar in the wake of the Troy Davis drama. McClesky, a Black man, was convicted of murdering a white police officer in Georgia on October 12, 1978, and sentenced to die. After exhausting the appeals process, McClesky filed a petition claiming that his sentence was the result of racial bias. However, McClesky didn’t just make any old whining claim about racial injustice; his team put together what is considered by legal experts to be some of the most extensive and unequivocal statistical research on racial discrimination in death penalty sentencing ever compiled.
In the end, the Supreme Court chose to look the other way and in so doing, allowed for the execution of McClesky, Davis and countless other Black men and women whose lives were taken away because of the color of their skin.
Here is what we know about Black people and the death penalty:
Historically, some states had special provisions during slavery that made offenses, large and small, committed by slaves punishable by the death penalty. We also know from a major study that Blacks are significantly more likely to receive the death penalty in cases where they have been convicted of killing a white person than in instances where the races are reversed. In addition, people of color have made up 43 percent of total executions since 1976, and compose 55 percent of those currently awaiting execution.
The evidence of shaky legality is as clear today as it was for McClesky 20 years ago. Now the question is: When will we push for the necessary changes to our legal and judicial system that will make sure that there is never again “too much doubt” in a death penalty case?
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(Photo: REUTERS/TAMI CHAPPELL/LANDOV)