comments_image Comments

Playing the race card in US executions

Anthony Graves, 48, spent 18 years in US jail, including 16 years on death row, for a crime he didn't commit
Anthony Graves, 48, who spent 18 years in US jail, including 16 years on death row, for a crime he didn't commit is pictured on May 20, 2013 in Houston, Texas. The 500th execution carried out by Texas this week has brought the spotlight back on the treatm

The 500th execution carried out by Texas this week has brought the spotlight back on the treatment of black offenders in the United States, and the case of Duane Buck looms large.

Like Kimberley McCarthy, the 52-year-old woman given a lethal injection on Wednesday, Buck is an African-American. Statistics show blacks are more likely to be given a death sentence than any other race.

The United States brought back the death penalty in 1976, and Buck was sentenced to death in Texas in 1997 for killing a former girlfriend and her male friend.

Buck does not deny the murders, but the capital punishment order came after a psychologist told the sentencing hearing that blacks are more likely to commit violent acts.

He had one last-minute reprieve from death in September 2011 but is still on death row while lawyers, activists, church leaders and, increasingly, politicians dispute the case.

"This is not about being innocent or guilty. This is about prejudice," Buck's lawyer Kate Black told AFP.

'Old Sparky,' responsible for hundreds of executions, is seen in the Texas Prison Museum on May 21, 2013 in Huntsville
"Old Sparky," the electric chair responsible for sending 361 prisoners to their deaths before its use was discontinued in 1965, is pictured in the Texas Prison Museum on May 21, 2013 in Huntsville, Texas.

"Mr. Buck hasn't had a fair sentencing trial because of this racial testimony," said Kathryn Kase, director of the Texas Defender Service.

"They might have given him life. We don't know. But we do know that he suffered from prejudice," added Howard Jefferson, head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Houston.

Civil rights leader Reverend Bill Lawson is at the forefront of a campaign to get a new sentencing hearing for Buck. Lawson has questioned the independence of lawyers appointed by judges who are themselves elected and so could be more tempted to take a populist decision.

Maurie Levin, a lawyer for McCarthy, said that "shameful" race errors were also made in her case. McCarthy was executed for killing a white neighbor in a drug-fueled frenzy.

The jury that chose death rather than life in prison was made up of 11 whites and one black.

McCarthy had been given two last-minute reprieves this year because of discrimination doubts.

On the eve of McCarthy's execution, Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), said he believed there would be a new suspension because the Texas legislature is considering a Racial Justice Act to bolster moves against racial bias.

The law, supported by Texas's only black district attorney, Craig Watkins, is however held up in state committees. Some conservatives say they see no need for it.

This image provided January 29, 2013 by the Texas Department of Corrections shows death row inmate Kimberly McCarthy
This image provided January 29, 2013 by the Texas Department of Corrections shows death row inmate Kimberly McCarthy.

Statistics indicate a grim picture for black defendants.

Over the past three decades, African-Americans have made up 35 percent of those executed and 42 percent of those sent to death row. They make up just 12 percent of the US population.

If Hispanics are added, minority groups make up more than half of death row inmates, even though they are less than a third of the population, according to the DPIC.

Robert Blecker, a New York Law School professor who advocates for the death penalty, acknowledges that one study says the facial features of African-Americans get a "harsher" treatment by juries. He however says the race card is "played and overplayed."

Dieter said the death row statistics are linked to poverty. Gloria Rubac, a Texas death penalty abolition campaigner, says it has to do with the US past of slavery and lynchings.

"Race is so intertwined with everything in the justice system that you cannot separate it from the death penalty," she said.

Buck's future may depend on whether lawyers and politicians can unravel the history and the law.

Share