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Racism, Classism, and the Death Penalty Game

Michael J. Borucke

In 1981, Shaka Sankofa, then Gary Graham, was wrongly convicted of the murder of Bob Lambert, and at 17 years of age, he was sentenced to death by the state of Texas. By international law, sentencing a minor to death is illegal; this, of course, is not the case in Texas.

Recent executions in Texas have showed that men, women, minors, and even the mentally retarded are all treated equally when it comes to capital punishment. After 19 years of languishing on death row, Shaka’s final appeal to the Supreme Court has been turned down. His execution date has been set for the 22nd of this month. Innocent of the crime for which he was convicted, but guilty of the crime for which he is being put to death -- being a poor African American) -- Shaka’s sad situation is just another example of the racism and classism in our justice system.

Even though African Americans are only 6 percent of the Texas population, they comprise 40 percent of the death row population. Nationally, there is little improvement in these statistics as African Americans make up 11 percent of the total population but still make up 40 percent of the death row population: one study of murder cases found that a convicted murderer was four times more likely to receive a death sentence if the victim was Caucasian American than if the victim was African American.

Lesson #1: If you are an African American standing accused of killing a Caucasian American, chances are favorable for a conviction as well as a death sentence. In regards to class, it is a fact that 90% of the prisoners on death row could not afford to hire a lawyer.

Lesson #2: If you have money, you probably won’t end up on death row, and if you don’t have money you don’t have justice. Much like the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal and many others, Shaka’s trial was a joke. From the lack of physical evidence to link Shaka to th e crime as well as the careful selection of eyewitness testimony to the incompetence of the defense council, Shaka’s trial is one that has been played out many times before. There was no physical evidence proving that Shaka had committed the crime. The gun that the prosecution presented to the jury was later dismissed as the murder weapon by a ballistics report. Of course, the jury never had the opportunity to look at that report during the trial. There were also no fingerprints that matched Shaka’s anywhere near the scene of the crime.

There were six eyewitnesses who claimed that Shaka was not the murderer, but they were never asked under oath if he had committed the murder. The only eyewitness to testify under oath claimed that Shaka was the murderer. The credibility of this last eyewitness is highly questionable since she saw the murderer for about “2-3 seconds, from 30-40 feet away, in a dark parking lot.” In addition, the composite of the murderer drawn from the description of this witness was drastically different than the face of Shaka.

There were also four alibi witnesses who claimed to be with Shaka miles away from the crime scene at the time of the murder. All four witnesses passed a polygraph test, but none were allowed to testify in court.

I can’t answer for a defense council that would allow these crucial facts to be omitted from Shaka’s trial. Perhaps Shaka’s lawyer neglected his duties because he believed Shaka was guilty to begin with. Even for the more honest lawyers, if you look at the amount of money court-appointed lawyers receive in capital cases (around 5 dollars per hour), these lawyers have less and less of an incentive to mount an adequate defense. The cuts in federal funding that Clinton has ordered for legal resource centers are not helping the situation. Furthermore, elected judges in Texas are allowed to appoint lawyers of their choosing for the defense. A visiting judge called this unusual practice a “travesty.”

Shaka’s fate is now in the hands of a governor who has sent more people to their deaths (131) than any other governor since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, namely presidential candidate George W. Bush. Bush claims that all the people put to death during his administration had full access to the law. And I for one feel very encouraged by that fact. But when Bush and the parole board made the final decisions regarding a prisoner’s request for clemency, each member could phone in their decision without providing any explanations. Bush himself took 15-30 minutes in reviewing a request according to Bush’s former general counsel member, Al Gonzales.

All is not lost, however, for when a governor is running for president of these United States, he can be pushed into doing things he wouldn’t normally do. Last week, George Bush granted a stay of execution for Ricky Nolen McGinn so that DNA testing may decide his innocence. While Bush aides claim that this act was done for moral reasons, not political ones, his lousy track record in granting clemency would show otherwise. Regardless, if Bush’s only concern for justice comes during campaign season, so be it.