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Racism is Alive and Well in South Carolina Death House

by Wendy Brinker

Anthony “Tony” Green is a 38-year old African American man who is scheduled to be executed by the state of South Carolina on August 23, 2002. He was convicted and sentenced to death in 1987 for the botched robbery and murder of Susan Babich in Charleston County. So why should you care what happens to Anthony Green?

You should care because at the time of Tony’s trial in 1988, Charlie Condon, the Charleston County Solicitor who declared he would prefer an electric sofa as opposed to the electric chair, pursued the death penalty in an alarmingly racist manner. He sought the death penalty in 40% of the cases where the defendant was African-American and the victim was white compared to only 2.9% of the cases where the defendant and the victim were both African-American. Likewise, the office pursued the death penalty in 32.3% of all cases where the victim was white, but only 5.2% of the time when the victim was black. In Charleston County, the state was fourteen times more likely to seek the death penalty in a case involving a black defendant if the victim was white. Such racial bias in the imposition of the death penalty means that regardless of the circumstances surrounding Tony’s case, his race and the race of his victim were determining factors in the state’s decision to seek death and the jury’s willingness to impose it.

Thirteen of twenty cases in which the Condon sought the death penalty between 1977 and 1990 involved African-American or minority defendants. It is implausible to believe that this pattern would emerge if race-neutral criteria were used by the prosecutor to determine when to seek the death penalty. Evidence from numerous studies demonstrates that this pattern of racial bias in the imposition of the death penalty is disturbingly consistent throughout South Carolina.

In South Carolina, African-American defendants who kill whites are sentenced to death at approximately 3 times the rate of whites that kill whites. There is a huge discrepancy between the sentences the state seeks when the victim is African-American and when the victim is white. Even though most murder victims in South Carolina are African-American, only .46% of African-American victim cases result in death sentences, compared to the 3.4% of white victim cases resulting in the death penalty. In South Carolina a person charged with killing someone white is 8 times more likely to be sentenced to death than a person charged with killing an African-American. More disturbingly, an African-American charged with killing a white person is approximately 6 times more likely to be sentenced to death.

Senseless, random violence is very difficult to comprehend. Susan Babich was not the only victim here. She was a daughter, sister, wife and mother. It is hard to imagine the injustice her family must feel losing her in this manner. It’s hard to understand what possessed Tony that afternoon back in 1987. People who knew him were shocked to hear of his arrest. He had no prior arrests and by all accounts, was a good, well-mannered kid with an impressive high school record and stellar performance on his high school basketball team. However, at the time of the shooting, he had developed a drug problem. It is understandable for Susan’s family to want revenge for her death, but revenge is not what drives our judicial system. Everyone, even people suspected of heinous crimes, are equal and entitled to certain protections under the law. That is how we, as a society, prevent further injustices from happening.

The fact that there are racial disparities inherent in the judicial system doesn’t come as a shock. Numbers don’t lie. In South Carolina, there are 3,855 black men per 100,000 in prison, compared to the rate for white men which are 588 per 100,000. Blacks are admitted to prison on drug charges at a rate that is 13.4 times greater than that of white men. Although blacks only comprise 30% of the population in South Carolina, 70% of our prison population is black. Blacks comprise an overwhelming 86% of the drug offenders in our state prisons. Race plays a dominant role in the courtrooms across our state. But by the very laws that are designed to protect us, it cannot continue to play a factor in the most profound decision a government can make – who lives and who dies.

While it may be difficult for us to view Tony Green as a victim as he awaits execution by lethal injection on the 23rd of this month, it should not be difficult to see the statistical patterns emerging as we delve into the race disparities and institutionalized racism present in capital sentencing. Tony’s lawyers have petitioned the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to review his sentence. As a member of the Organization of American states and signatory to three key human rights treaties, Tony’s lawyers argue that the United States is bound by the rulings of the IAHRC. The IAHRC has issued precautionary measures to the United States not to carry out Tony’s execution but it will be several months before the commission is able to perform a complete investigation. Because of the delay, Tony’s lawyers have asked the S.C. Supreme Court to stay his execution. They have also asked Governor Jim Hodges to grant Green a reprieve to give the IACHR enough time to rule in his case. We, as a civilized society, must insist that this happen. When the system fails to protect one of us, the system has failed us all.

Wendy Brinker is Project Coordinator for the South Carolina Equal Justice Alliance in Columbia, South Carolina.

She can be reached at: maat156@earthlink.net

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