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For activists, Troy Davis case is indicative of racial bias

Text by Sarah LEDUC

Latest update : 2011-09-21

The case of Troy Davis, an African-American scheduled to be executed in Georgia Wednesday for killing a white police officer, has added new urgency to arguments that the US justice system is racially discriminatory.

Is it likelier for black convicts in the US to be sentenced to death than white convicts? According to those who have taken up the cause of Troy Davis, an African-American prisoner scheduled to be executed by lethal injection in Georgia on Wednesday, the answer is obvious. Davis, who was convicted of shooting a white police officer to death in 1989, has spent twenty years on death row. His requests for clemency have been denied.

The 42-year-old Davis has become the symbol of the international campaign against the death penalty, which is practiced less and less frequently in the US but is still legal in 35 states. More specifically, Davis has been presented by his supporters as the prototypical victim of capital punishment: black, poor, and wrongly convicted. According to the Death Penalty Information Centre, 42% of those sentenced to death in the US are black, although African-Americans make up between 12% and 14% of the total US population.

“The refusal…by the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant Troy Davis clemency underscores the vast systemic injustices that plague our death penalty system,” read a statement by Denny LeBoeuf, the director of the Capital Punishment Project being carried out by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). “The death penalty system in the United States is arbitrary, discriminatory and comes at an enormous cost to taxpayers, and it must be ended.”

Wrongful conviction?

Civil rights groups have denounced the shakiness of the case against Davis, which his lawyers have fought to demonstrate over the past four years. Among the arguments raised is the fact that seven out of nine witnesses who in 1991 identified Davis as the shooter in question have since withdrawn their testimony. In August of 2009, several of the witnesses said they had been pressured by the police to identify Davis as the wrongdoer. Moreover, the weapon with which the crime was allegedly committed has never been found, and no fingerprints or DNA samples taken.

Interviewed by FRANCE 24, Eileen Servidio, a law professor at the American Graduate School, pointed to racial discrimination and socio-economic inequalities as reasons for Davis ending up on death row. “One must not forget that a certain class of the US population cannot afford to pay for good lawyers,” she said.

According to prominent French lawyer and former justice minister Robert Badinter, who fought to obtain the abolition of the death penalty in France 30 years ago, racism is inevitably behind the skewed death penalty statistics in the US – and behind the death sentence handed to Davis’. “When you look at this case, you see that a young black man was convicted in Georgia, which has a history of racism dating back to slavery, without material evidence,” Badinter summed up.

Black convicts, white judges

Statistics have shown that race – of the victim and of the accused – remain an important factor in the enforcement of the death penalty in the US. Two American researchers, law professor David Baldus and statistician George Woodworth, argued ten years ago that the probability of being sentenced to death was 3.9 times higher if the accused was black.

Meanwhile, more recent studies carried out by the Death Penalty Information Centre established that the risk of being sentenced to death is four times higher if the victim is white than if the victim is black – and up to eleven times higher if the accused is black and his presumed victim is white.

That disparity has been explained by various social, cultural and historic factors, but one theory put forth by Professor Jeffrey Pokorak of the University of Saint Mary in Texas centres around the fact that 98% of chief district attorneys in death penalty states are white, while only 1% are black.

Date created : 2011-09-21

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