Written By: Billy Sinclair
This past year brought closure to two of the most celebrated death row cases in the nation: Troy Davis and Damien Echols. Davis, who was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1989 killing of a Savannah, Georgia police officer, was executed on September 21, 2011. One month earlier, August 19, Echols, who was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1993 killings of three 8-year old Cub Scouts in West Memphis, Arkansas, was released from death row following an extraordinary Alford plea deal brokered by his high powered defense team.
The controversy, even celebrity, surrounding both cases was fueled by national and international supporters who vehemently professed the innocence of both men. The Echols case, known as the “West Memphis Three,” drew support from a laundry list of celebrities: Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder, Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines, and awarding-winning actor Johnny Depp. The Davis case drew support from an equally diverse group of celebrities: Def Comedy Jam’s Russell Simmons, designer Kim Kardashian, and comedian Sandra Bernhard. Both cases enjoyed warm media support from CNN, the New York Times, documentary filmmakers, and a slew of political commentators/bloggers.
I have expressed my belief in the guilt of both men in a number of posts on this website, although I stated both men should not be executed because new evidence of their innocence was compelling enough to cast “legal” reasonable doubt about their guilt.
So why was Davis executed and Echols freed? The evidence of guilt, and the questions about the quality of that evidence, was essentially equal in both cases. So the answer as to why one was executed and the other set free is quite simple.
Troy Davis, a black, killed a white police officer while Damien Echols, a white, killed three white kids. The racial component is obvious. Blacks who kill whites are far more likely to receive the death penalty and have it carried out than whites who kill whites, even when the victims are children.
We are a class-conscious society. Since the Founding Fathers, we have a long, pitiful history of placing classes of people on a totem pole measured by race, wealth, profession, culture, even age. The death penalty reflects these class biases. Killing a police officer is considered one of the worst (if not the worst) crimes in America, and the heinousness of the act is significantly increased when the offender is black and the victim is white. Thus, the life of a white police officer in Savannah, Georgia, extinguished by a black street thug was worth more than the lives of three 8-year-old children in West Memphis, Arkansas, extinguished by a white devil-worshiper.
The final action taken in both cases, the execution of one and freedom for the other, not only speak volumes about the inequities of our criminal justice system but the state of race in our Southern society. Three-fourths of all executions since 1977 have occurred in the South, most involving black offenders.
White police officers in the South have always enjoyed a special place in the hearts of Southerners. They stand as a shield between the lawless and the law-abiding. At different points in the South’s ugly history the police worked hand-in-hand with lynch mobs, as they did on August 17, 1915 in Marietta, Georgia with the lynching of Leo Frank; and joined criminal conspiracies to kill black civil rights workers in the civil rights era such as James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in Nashoba County, Mississippi on June 21, 1964. So Southerners, many of whom still long for the “good old days,” owe a special allegiance to the man with the gun and the club.
But the same Southern mindset has never been overly concerned about its children: the South has the highest (or near the highest) rates of child homelessness, children in poverty, child hunger, child physical/sexual abuse by family members, and a host of other social ills affecting millions of children. Most of these children are from racial minority families. Black, Hispanic, and poor white children are really low on the Southern class totem pole.
Put simply: a white police officer’s life is more valuable than three small children—and that’s why Troy Davis was executed and Damien Echols is walking the streets of New York. A helluva way to do business in the death penalty industry.