Intractable Obstacles

Last year ended with the news of a record low number of death sentences, and with the decision by the American Law Institute, described today in the New York Times, to give up trying to fix our broken capital punishment system.  The Institute, a collection of thousands of judges, lawyers and law professors, is very influential, in that it creates model penal codes which often serve as the basis for the real-life laws under which we live.  

The Institute created the “modern” death penalty system that the US Supreme Court endorsed in 1976.  But a report detailing factors we are already all too familiar with – persistent racial bias, inadequate defense, wrongful convictions, and a politicized judiciary – caused the Institute to vote to abandon capital punishment, citing “… intractable institutional and structural obstacles to ensuring a minimally adequate system for administering capital punishment.”  

This doesn’t mean that the death penalty in the US will suddenly cease to exist; the deliberate and thoughtful analysis of the American Law Institute will not have an immediate impact in states where killing prisoners is routine and done without much thought at all.

Executions will continue.  Three in fact, will occur on Thursday.  While the usual suspects, Texas and Ohio, plan to execute Kenneth Mosley and Vernon Smith (aka Abdullah Sharif Kaazim Mahdi), Louisiana also has an execution scheduled on that day – its first in almost 8 years.  Gerald Bordelon has “volunteered” to be executed.  The next day, January 8, South Carolina will execute Quincy Allen.  He, too, is “volunteering,” and has asked to be put to death by electrocution.  The state will oblige him.

UPDATE: The state of South Carolina will NOT oblige Quincy Allen’s volunteering to be electrocuted.  The South Carolina Supreme Court has stayed his execution.

A Pardon 94 Years Too Late

Wednesday, Oct. 14, radio host Tom Joyner became the first person to obtain a posthumous pardon for unjust executions in South Carolina.  South Carolina is a typical gung-ho executing Southern state, so this achievement was no small feat.  Joyner obtained the pardon on behalf of two great uncles, Thomas and Meeks Griffin, who in 1915 were wrongfully put to death for the 1913 murder of a white Civil War veteran in Blackstock, SC.  Joyner only found out about this tragic episode because of his participation in African American Lives 2, a 2006 PBS show that traced the ancestries of prominent African Americans.

While Joyner was understandably shocked and motivated to action by this revelation of his family history, the story of what happened in South Carolina 94 years ago is eerily familiar to what goes on in capital punishment in America today.  Certainly, wrongful death sentences and executions (as the Cameron Todd Willingham case definitively demonstrates) are still with us.  The Griffin brothers were framed for the murder by the actual killer, as was the case in John Grisham’s non-fiction study The Innocent Man, and as seems likely to have been the case with Troy Davis. And, as is the case today, legal costs were devastating; the Griffins had to sell off their considerable land holdings (130 acres) to pay for their lawyer. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST