FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Gov. Greitens: Pull Down Missouri’s Racist Death Penalty Statutes!

Photo by thekirbster | CC BY 2.0

This past Tuesday, well over one hundred and fifty years since the end of the Civil War, a powerful, well-connected, well-to-do Southern white man, Missouri Governor Eric Greitens, exercised his law-given authority to stay the execution of Marcellus Williams, a poor black man. The reprieve was issued hours before the scheduled pumping of caustic chemicals by state officials into Williams’s body. 

Convicted by a nearly all-white jury (there was one black juror) of killing a white woman, Williams was tried in St. Louis County, a jurisdiction writer Rebecca McCray observes is known for the “ease with which prosecutors exclude black jurors in capital trials.” Putting aside the pernicious use of race in denying Williams a true jury of his peers, and also, the tenuous evidence admitted against him – and the grave, grave questions lingering about his guilt – it is critical to understand: Williams was exponentially more likely to receive a death sentence solely because of race, particularly the race of the victim. This long-acknowledged abomination in American death penalty jurisprudence was cowardly acquiesced to by the United States Supreme Court in 1987, in McClesky v. Kemp, a case New York University School of Law professor and celebrated Supreme Court lawyer Anthony G. Amsterdam called, “the Dred Scott decision of our time.”

Williams’s stay of execution, which Greitens granted for “a board of inquiry” to examine DNA test results and additional evidence Williams’s lawyers assert demonstrate his innocence, is temporary. St. Louis county prosecutor Bob McCullough, another white man, the same prosecutor who failed to indict (white) police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Michael Brown, argues “there was ample other evidence to convict Williams and ‘zero possibility of [Williams’s] innocence.’”

But morally, in keeping with his core beliefs – and irrespective of the nitty-gritty merits of Williams’s innocence claim – Governor Greitens, a former Navy Seal and a man of honor, must commute, to life without the possibility of parole, Williams’s death sentence. Demonstrating consciousness and character desperately lacking in politics today, Greitens must declare a moratorium on the death penalty in Missouri and commute the death sentences of all the state’s condemned inmates – not just Williams’s.

Why? Because of the same logic of fairness and equality undergirding the statement of Admiral John Richardson, the country’s top naval officer, right after the violence in Charlottesville; Richardson declared “the Navy will forever stand against intolerance and hatred.” Echoing Richardson on the day white nationalists rallied in Virginia, Governor Greitens took to twitter, typing:“The hate, racism, and violence on display in Charlottesville is terrible. We must come together. Americans are better than this.”

Admiral Richardson and Governor Greitens are right, Americans are “better than this.” But, by “this,” I also include as Greitens, Richardson, and the rest of civilized society must, the unacceptable racial bias that persists in capital punishment – an ignominious bloody stain running far deeper, and with more tragic results in the frayed fabric of our country, than what we saw in Charlottesville. Indeed, the history of the death penalty in America is hewn from the hell of slavery, subjugation, and the suffering of black people. In an essay in the formidable new book “Policing the Black Man,” legendary civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson writes: “The decline of lynching in America relied heavily on the increased use of capital punishment following court trials and accelerated, unreliable legal process in state courts. The death penalty’s roots are clearly linked to the legacy of lynching.”

A week after the recent ugliness in Charlottesville, popular Protestant pastor and president of North Carolina’s NAACP, Rev. William J. Barber II, posted to his widely followed twitter account: “Pull down the racist statutes, not just the Confederate statues.” While some immediately questioned if, like many first-year law students, Barber had committed a scrivener’s error, a subsequent column in Durham’s daily newspaper, The Herald-Sun, made clear, he had not.

Speaking at Peace Missionary Baptist Church, Barber is reported to have said: “If you just pull down the statue but you do not pull down the statutes, the laws that support them, we still have issues.” The Herald-Sun observed: “Barber admitted that politicians were quick to say the events in Charlottesville were horrible but the root of racism goes much deeper. Solving that problem in America is going to be a long struggle . . . . It will take more than removing offensive symbols. Laws will have to be changed.”

Racist death penalty statutes must be the first to go. Exercising meaningful, impactful leadership, Governor Greitens can and should, start with Missouri’s.

More articles by:

Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California.

Weekend Edition
November 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Jonah Raskin
A California Jew in a Time of Anti-Semitism
Andrew Levine
Whither the Melting Pot?
Joshua Frank
Climate Change and Wildfires: The New Western Travesty
Nick Pemberton
The Revolution’s Here, Please Excuse Me While I Laugh
T.J. Coles
Israel Cannot Use Violent Self-Defense While Occupying Gaza
Rob Urie
Nuclear Weapons are a Nightmare Made in America
Paul Street
Barack von Obamenburg, Herr Donald, and Big Capitalist Hypocrisy: On How Fascism Happens
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Fire is Sweeping Our Very Streets Today
Aidan O'Brien
Ireland’s New President, Other European Fools and the Abyss 
Pete Dolack
“Winners” in Amazon Sweepstakes Sure to be the Losers
Richard Eskow
Amazon, Go Home! Billions for Working People, But Not One Cent For Tribute
Ramzy Baroud
In Breach of Human Rights, Netanyahu Supports the Death Penalty against Palestinians
Brian Terrell
Ending the War in Yemen- Congressional Resolution is Not Enough!
John Laforge
Woolsey Fire Burns Toxic Santa Susana Reactor Site
Ralph Nader
The War Over Words: Republicans Easily Defeat the Democrats
M. G. Piety
Reading Plato in the Time of the Oligarchs
Rafael Correa
Ecuador’s Soft Coup and Political Persecution
Brian Cloughley
Aid Projects Can Work, But Not “Head-Smacking Stupid Ones”
David Swanson
A Tale of Two Marines
Robert Fantina
Democrats and the Mid-Term Elections
Joseph Flatley
The Fascist Creep: How Conspiracy Theories and an Unhinged President Created an Anti-Semitic Terrorist
Joseph Nevins
Twitter: Fast Track to the Id
William Hawes
Baselines for Activism: Brecht’s Stance, the New Science, and Planting Seeds
Bob Wing
Toward Racial Justice and a Third Reconstruction
Ron Jacobs
Hunter S. Thompson: Chronicling the Republic’s Fall
Oscar Gonzalez
Stan Lee and a Barrio Kid
Jack Rasmus
Election 2018 and the Unraveling of America
Sam Pizzigati
The Democrats Won Big, But Will They Go Bold?
Yves Engler
Canada and Saudi Arabia: Friends or Enemies?
Cesar Chelala
Can El Paso be a Model for Healing?
Mike Ferner
The Tragically Misnamed Paris Peace Conference
Barry Lando
Trump’s Enablers: Appalling Parallels
Jasmine Aguilera
Beto’s Lasting Legacy
Ariel Dorfman
The Boy Who Taught Me About War and Peace
Yves Engler
Ottawa, Yemen and Guardian
Michael Winship
This Was No Vote Accident
Binoy Kampmark
The Disgruntled Former Prime Minister
Tracey L. Rogers
Dear White Women, There May be Hope for You After All
Faisal Khan
Is Dubai Really a Destination of Choice?
Arnold August
The Importance of Néstor García Iturbe, Cuban Intellectual
James Munson
An Indecisive War To End All Wars, I Mean the Midterm Elections
Nyla Ali Khan
Women as Repositories of Communal Values and Cultural Traditions
Thomas Knapp
Scott Gottlieb’s Nicotine Nazism Will Kill Kids, Not Save Them
Dan Bacher
Judge Orders Moratorium on Offshore Fracking in Federal Waters off California
Christopher Brauchli
When Depravity Wins
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail