The death penalty: Justice for Whites?

Ampudia listens with interest as Casarez explains details in the Anthony Graves case Photo by: Erika Andrade

If you want to commit a murder make sure you are white, have a fat wallet for a good legal defense and kill a person of color, recommended David R. Dow, the moderator of Black, Brown and Invisible: Minorities on Death Row, a roundtable discussion about the death penalty at University of St Thomas on Sep 22.

“80 percent of the people who are put to death in the United States are put to death for killing a white person,” said Dow, law professor at the University of Houston, death row attorney and founder of the Texas Innocence Network, “Of the last 30 defendants who have faced the death penalty in Harris County, 27 of the defendants have been people of color. Three of them white.”

On Wednesday, Troy Davis and Lawrence Brewer were executed 4 hours apart from each other; Davis in Georgia and Brewer in Texas.

“When Brewer was executed, he became the third white death row inmate in Texas who was executed for killing a black person, the second was Lee Taylor and the first is Larry Hayes,” Dow said.

According to Amnesty International, “the majority of death row defendants have been executed for killing white victims, although African-Americans make up about half of all homicide victims.”  Their data shows that since 1976, 77 percent of homicide victims were white, 15 percent African-American, 6 percent Hispanic and 2 percent other.

Roundtable participants, Ricardo Ampudia, author of “Mexicans on Death Row”; Scott J. Atlas, attorney and former lead counsel in the death penalty case for Ricardo Aldape Guerra; and Nicole Casarez, law professor at the University of St. Thomas, attorney and former lead counsel for Anthony Graves’ death penalty case agreed racial bias influences death penalty convictions.

The panel first focused on the international impact of the Ricardo Aldape Guerra case, a Mexican national wrongfully sentenced to death for the murder of a Harris County police officer in 1982. Evidence surfacing when Scott Atlas came to his defense in 1992, demonstrated that police intimidation and prosecutorial misconduct in the original trial caused the jury to convict Aldape based on his illegal immigration status.

“(The case) represented a clear example of how, through errors in legal proceedings, there exists the possibility of innocent people being executed,” Ampudia said.

Only through the involvement of then former Mexican Consulate and Atlas did the Harris County district attorney’s office ask the state court to dismiss the charges against Aldape in 1997, 14 years after being incarcerated.

“Aldape provided the humanistic profile of a fact that many perceive exclusively as a difference of opinion,” Ampudia said.

The panelists presented the case of Anthony Graves as another example of the racial flaws in death penalty convictions.  Graves had been convicted of killing a 45-year-old mother, her 16-year-old daughter and four children under the ages of 9. Though Anthony always proclaimed his innocence, “his case is a little bit different because Anthony is African-American, and his victims or the victims of the crime were also African-Americans,” Casarez said.

Atlas explains his involvement in the Ricardo Aldape Case Photo by: Erika Andrade

Based on the lack of evidence against Graves and the key witness recanting, Casarez was successful in obtaining a reversal of his conviction in 2006.  Casarez said, “I thought Anthony was going home. Texas decided it would re-prosecute Anthony based on the same old terrible evidence.“

Casarez continually referred to the similarities between Graves’ case and Davis’ execution, despite his claims of innocence and several witnesses having recanted their testimony. “It was a miracle, an absolute miracle that it came out right and that’s scary,” she said about the Graves case.

Graves was finally released in October 2010, after being declared an innocent man and spending 18 years in jail. Casarez fought persistently to get the state to compensate Graves and help him reintegrate into society.

The statistics and exonerations show the system is flawed and based more on the race of the victim than the heinousness of the crime.   Based on these facts, more thought needs to be put into how the United States proceeds with capital punishment.

“There are serious violations of the human rights of persons facing the possibility of being executed for having committed a crime that our society has judged to be ‘serious’” Ampudia said, “Do you really feel that the harm done by a criminal, whatever the seriousness of the crime, is remedied by executing him or her inside the death chamber?”

Article written by: Ruth Muñoz and Erika Andrade

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