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Sweet home Alabama

By Nancy Goldstein | RAW STORY COLUMNIST

If you are a poor person of color accused of a capital crime in Alabama, what stands between you and the death penalty?

Not much.

Alabama has no statewide public defender system, and your court-appointed lawyer from the local bar may not be very happy to see you. After all, defending your life will net him barely a third of what he might have made closing a real-estate transaction — assuming he ranked highly enough in the local legal food chain to be awarded these lucrative deals.


Besides, being seen with you may strike him as an economic, social, and political liability in a state where professional advancement to the bench depends entirely upon the will of the electorate.

Come trial time, there’s a good chance that you’ll be the only person of color in the courtroom. All 19 of Alabama’s appellate court judges are white, as are 41 of its 42 elected District Attorneys. Odds are 1 in 3 that your jury will be all white as well.

Since Alabama’s resumption of the death penalty in 1975, courts have found that prosecutors illegally excluded black people from serving as jurors in at least 28 capital cases.

Statistics outline the grim results of Alabama’s systemic judicial inequities in irrefutable black and white. Its death row population has doubled in the past decade, with an overall death-sentencing rate that is 3-10 times greater than that of other Southern states. Though black people account for only 26% of Alabama’s population overall, nearly 63% of its prisoners are black. Of the 23 people executed in Alabama between 1975 and 2001, 70% were black.

These figures get a boost from a local law that allows an elected judge to reject a jury’s verdict of life and unilaterally sentence a prisoner to death. Nearly 22% of the people sitting on Alabama’s death row were initially handed life sentences by their juries. Once convicted to death row, prisoners have no right to counsel. Those that do receive permission to seek legal recourse are faced with the nearly impossible task of attracting a lawyer who will work with a state-imposed $1,000 salary cap.

By representing dozens of the condemned men, women, and juveniles currently facing execution, the Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama (EJI), a non-profit organization based in Montgomery, works against this tide. While their victories have not yet added up to the top-to-bottom overhaul Alabama’s judicial system needs, they have been significant.

EJI won most of the 23 cases in the last decade where convictions were reversed after it was proven that prosecutors illegally excluded black people from jury service. This past January, it obtained Alabama’s first judgment barring imposition of the death penalty for a death row prisoner because of mental retardation. Several more successes this spring earned death row prisoners represented by EJI new trials or cleared the way for them to appeal their convictions.

“It’s very tempting to look tough on crime in Alabama,” says Bryan Stevenson, EJI’s Executive Director, and Professor of Clinical Law at NYU School of Law. “A judge comes up for re-election every 4-6 years, and since the state went red 20 years ago, the pressure is really on.” He explains that this is one of the factors behind the high percentage of judicial overrides. “A very partisan electoral process like Alabama’s, that forces candidates to adhere to popular opinion, never plays out well for people who are disadvantaged or disfavored.”

But where are all of those ardent supporters of the so-called “culture of life” when it comes to the routine execution of citizens who face inadequate counsel in a biased system?

“There’s been a stunning silence from people who talk about the value of life when it comes to these issues,” Stevenson sighs. “And this is disingenuous. We don’t have to execute people to protect public safety. While the Pope is explicit about being against execution, American political leadership, including Catholic leadership, is not only silent, but also resistant to any portion of the ‘culture of life’ that refers to the death penalty. The black church, which has given us a great deal of support, and communities of color have been the exceptions.”

Beyond EJI’s life-and-death issues lies an even larger bête noir: the systematic perversion of states’ rights. Right-wingers emboldened by a solid Republican grip on power are using states’ rights rhetoric to attack everything from Roe v. Wade to gay rights. Retrograde lawmakers and lobbying groups are seeking to undermine the US Constitution and innumerable federal laws enacted to ensure that all states grant their citizens full civil rights.

Stevenson speaks not just from professional experience, but from personal experience as well when he says that most reforms in Alabama have happened on the federal level: he grew up attending “colored” schools whose separate and unequal structure was mandated by state law until the federal government intervened.

“The ugly underside of limiting the power of the federal government,” he warns, “is allowing states to do ALL that they want. If the politics of the locality prevail, and are unchecked by some kind of oversight, we are really in a lot of trouble.”

And what might Alabama do without federal oversight, guided only by the will of the majority?

Exhibit A: In last November’s election, 51% of Alabama’s voters upheld a statewide referendum to keep segregation-era wording which required separate schools for “white and colored children” in its constitution.

Just this past June, when the Senate’s resolution apologizing for not passing anti-lynching legislation reached the floor, Jeff Sessions (R-AL) was one of only four senators who insisted that a recorded vote not be taken. Richard Shelby (R-AL) was one of only 13 senators who went on record opposing it.

Against the odds and the political tide, Stevenson and his staff continue to work with community groups, lawyers, the church, and the media to reform Alabama’s criminal justice system. He is inspired by his memories of the 50s and 60s — “a time when young people advocating for a different America could say, ‘we don’t have power or resources, but we have moral integrity and we think you should be ashamed.’”

Stevenson still follows the credo of those times — that one should judge the civility of a society not by how it treats the wealthy, but by how it treats the poor and disadvantaged and disfavored. “If you want to talk about democracy and human rights, you have to confront this,” he says.

“What we’re doing to disadvantaged and disfavored people in the name of protecting ourselves is horrible, and it says something about our character.”

Nancy Goldstein’s column appears on Raw Story every other Thursday. She can be reached at [email protected].


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