Workers Vanguard No. 978
15 April 2011
Abolish the Racist Death Penalty!
Supreme Court Gives Green Light to Troy Davis Execution
In a supreme act of racist contempt, on March 28 the highest court in the U.S. greased the skids for the execution of Troy Davis when it refused to consider his appeal. This latest and probably last appeal for Davis sought to reverse a Georgia federal district court ruling last August upholding his conviction and death sentence. Expressing how cheap America’s capitalist rulers consider the life of a black man, the Supreme Court made no reference to the extensive evidence of Davis’s innocence presented at the district court hearing, dismissing his appeal out of hand. With the stroke of a pen, another black life is to be disposed of.
Davis’s sister, Martina Correia, who has campaigned around the world for her brother’s exoneration, responded to the Supreme Court ruling by describing the sham evidentiary hearing held last June in Savannah: “Once the judge opened his mouth and looked at my brother with disgust I knew that no matter what Troy’s lawyers had to present the judge had already made his decision to deny Troy, so he was just going through the motions like a puppeteer.”
Sentenced to death in 1991 for the killing of off-duty Savannah policeman Mark MacPhail, Davis was convicted based on questionable “eyewitness” identifications, dubious accounts that Davis confessed to the killing and testimony coerced by the cops. Seven of the prosecution’s nine witnesses have since recanted. The only holdouts are one man who may be the actual killer and another who initially denied being able to identify the shooter only to pin it on Davis at trial two years later. At last year’s hearing, some of these witnesses were finally able to tell how they were forced by the cops to falsely implicate Davis. But the federal court decision sneered that this testimony was “smoke and mirrors” and declared the accounts of police/prosecution coercion—a regular feature of the capitalist justice system—were not credible because the cops said it didn’t happen that way! (For more on that hearing, see “Troy Davis Appeal Turned Down,” WV No. 965, 24 September 2010.)
One day after the Supreme Court turned Davis down, the Court overturned a $14 million jury verdict awarded to black former death row inmate John Thompson against former New Orleans D.A. Harry Connick Sr. Thompson had spent 14 years on death row and came within weeks of execution, when his attorneys found evidence that prosecutors had concealed from the defense blood samples and eyewitness statements that exonerated him. According to the decision written by Justice Clarence Thomas, such frame-up methods did not constitute “deliberate indifference.” In an op-ed column he wrote for the New York Times (10 April) that powerfully recounts his ordeal, Thompson remarks: “I was lucky, and got lawyers who went to extraordinary lengths. But there are more than 4,000 people serving life without parole in Louisiana, almost none of whom have lawyers after their convictions are final.”
The broad exposure of so many men and women on death row proven innocent in recent years has given the ruling-class parties some pause in the accelerated rush to execution that has marked the 35 years since the death penalty was restored in 1976, following a nine-year hiatus. On March 9, Democratic Illinois governor Pat Quinn signed legislation abolishing capital punishment in the state. Illinois thus became the fifth state since 2004 to eliminate the death penalty, either through legislative action or through court decree. Yet some 3,200 people remain on death row, over half of them black and Latino. And while executions dropped last year by 12 percent to 46—less than half of those executed in 1999—the U.S. is still one of the world’s leaders in capital punishment.
The death row speedup launched in the mid 1980s was accompanied by a vast expansion of repressive laws and police powers, fueled in large part by the racist “war on drugs.” Untold numbers of black youth were tried, convicted and sentenced as adults. Mandatory sentencing did away with parole. The later adoption of “three strikes” laws meant that one could get life imprisonment for stealing a tape deck out of a parked car.
On top of all this, a plethora of state laws limited the right to present new evidence on appeal in capital cases, while the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1996 greatly restricted the right to challenge state convictions through federal habeas corpus. Earlier this month, when the Supreme Court reinstated the California death sentence of Scott Pinholster, which had been overturned on new evidence presented in his federal court appeals, Clarence Thomas baldly stated that although state prisoners may sometimes submit new evidence in federal court, federal law “is designed to strongly discourage them from doing so.”
Among those whom Clinton’s laws help keep trapped on death row is political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal. A former Black Panther Party spokesman, a supporter of the Philadelphia MOVE group and an award-winning journalist, Mumia was framed up on false charges of killing Police Officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981 and sentenced to death based on his political views. Court after court has refused to consider the mountain of evidence of Mumia’s innocence, including the confession of Arnold Beverly that he, not Mumia, killed Faulkner (see the Partisan Defense Committee pamphlet, The Fight to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal—Mumia Is Innocent!). For the poor, for fighters against racial oppression, for labor militants, there is no justice in the capitalist courts.
As Marxists, we stand for the abolition of the death penalty on principle—for the guilty as well as the innocent—and everywhere. We do not accord the state the right to determine who lives and who dies. The lynching of American black men—by racist mobs and by the august courts—is deeply embedded in this country’s history, particularly but by no means exclusively in Southern states like Troy Davis’s Georgia. In the U.S., capital punishment is the lynch rope made legal, with black people making up over 40 percent of the death row population.
The death penalty stands at the apex of the machinery of repression wielded by the capitalist rulers to contain the potentially explosive contradictions between the handful of filthy rich at the top and the many at the bottom. To put a final halt to the grisly workings of the U.S. rulers’ machinery of death—from the judicial guardians of death row to the cops who operate as judge, jury and executioner in gunning down minority youth on the streets—requires sweeping away the racist capitalist system through proletarian socialist revolution.