When Troy Anthony Davis was executed in Georgia this past fall after serving nearly two decades on death row, it unleashed an international outcry about the brutality and injustice of the death penalty. Just before he was administered the lethal injection that ended his life, Davis urged his supporters to work to end the inhumane practice of capital punishment. “Continue to fight this fight,” Davis said, shortly before he was put to death.
Now, three months later, the Philadelphia district attorney announced that his office has decided, sensibly, to call off its 30-year quest to execute former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted of the shooting death of a white police officer in 1981. The announcement is a welcome victory in the long fight against the death penalty.
As with Davis, the racially charged case of Mumia Abu-Jamal sparked widespread attention and became a centerpiece in the fight over the America’s bloodthirsty love affair with the death penalty. The one-time journalist who has hosted radio shows in Philadelphia received international support in the form of the “Free Mumia” movement. Human rights organizations both in the United States and abroad rallied to his cause.
While the decision will in no way end the controversy over whether the trial was conducted fairly or the verdict just, there is one point that is utterly without debate: The death penalty has historically been administered unfairly, with a disproportionately higher number of black, brown and poor people who are put to death. In many cases, the evidence of the innocence of the executed emerges long after it is too late.
The Davis and Mumia cases are only the most newsworthy ones in the world of 2011. But capital punishment has a long and horrific history in America.
Older Americans will no doubt remember the case of George Stinney, a 14-year-old Black boy who was arrested in 1944 in South Carolina on suspicion of killing two white girls. His trial was a farce, showcasing the ghastly racism of Jim Crow America. He was tried and convicted in a matter of hours, represented by a politically ambitious defense attorney whose performance was alarmingly inept. To this day, the question of Stinney’s guilt remains very much in doubt. His family was without the resources to fight for his life through a legal system that was disposed to execute him.
There are numerous such examples in the sad annals of American history. If nothing else, they should serve to remind us that capital punishment is a brutal practice laced with historic injustice.
Indeed, Benjamin Todd Jealous, the president and chief executive of the NAACP, said it best. “This country has reserved capital punishment for people without any capital for generations,” Jealous said in an interview discussing the Mumia case. “It’s time for us as a nation to end this practice.”
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