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Another reason to abolish the death penalty

Published Sep 9, 2009 5:18 PM

The death penalty in the United States should be abolished because it functions as a potent agent of racism and class oppression. African Americans and Latino/as represent the majority of those on death row. And executions are reserved almost exclusively for the poor. Ninety percent of those awaiting execution could not afford to hire a trial attorney.

In addition, death penalty abolitionists have known for decades that many of those executed are also innocent. Now the corporate media has finally covered one such case in which recent evidence reveals that another innocent person was executed—and where else but in the state of Texas.

Craig Beyler, a nationally recognized arson expert, wrote in an August report for the Texas Forensic Science Commission that a 1991 fire which killed Todd Willingham’s three young daughters was not arson. Willingham was executed for their murder in 2004.

As he lay on the gurney in Huntsville, Willingham had said, “I am an innocent man, convicted of a crime I did not commit. I have been persecuted for 12 years for something I did not do.”

Todd Willingham was innocent and there’s a simple reason for his 2004 execution: He was poor.

We are taught in school that justice is blind, but in no civics book does it say how expensive it is.

His stepmother, Eugenia Willingham, who raised Todd from the age of 13 months, spoke to hundreds in Austin, Texas, in 2006 at the Seventh Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty. The marchers had left a letter at the gates to the Governor’s Mansion for Gov. Rick Perry, asking him to investigate the case and stop all pending executions so that no other innocent person would be put to death.

Today, Texas may become the first state in the modern era forced to acknowledge that it executed a legally and factually innocent person.

Death penalty activists know the names of many other innocent people who have been executed: Shaka Sankofa, Frances Newton, Carlos de Luna, Joseph Nichols, Ruben Cantu and Carlos Santana, to name but a few.

More than a few innocent people set to be executed are still living on death row and should be exonerated before they, too, are killed by the state: Mumia Abu-Jamal, Troy Davis, Howard Guidry, Cesar Fierro, Jeff Wood, Rodney Reed, Max Soffar, Darlie Routier, Anthony Graves and many more.

Modern legal lynchings

The U.S. was founded on the theft of Native land. It developed riches through the super-exploitation of enslaved Africans. From Reconstruction until the gains made by the Civil Rights Movement, Black people were frequent victims of vicious lynch mobs.

Today’s executions are modern-day lynchings—and almost 90 percent of executions take place in former Confederate states.

An innocent Black man in Conroe, Texas, Clarence Brandley, was picked up by cops along with an equally innocent elderly white man in the late summer of 1981 to be questioned about the rape and murder of a white teenager. The sheriff was under pressure to find the perpetrator of this awful crime before school started.

He looked at Brandley and said, “You’re the n—-er, so you’re elected.” Brandley spent nine years on death row before being exonerated.

As Shaka Sankofa lay strapped on the gurney in Huntsville on June 22, 2000, he said, “They know I’m innocent. They’ve got the facts to prove it. ... But they cannot acknowledge my innocence, because to do so would be to publicly admit their guilt.”

Sankofa continued, “Slavery couldn’t stop us. The lynchings in the South couldn’t stop us. This lynching will not stop us tonight. We will go forward . ... It’s state-sanctioned lynching, right here in America and right here tonight. Our destiny in this country is freedom and liberation. We will gain it by any means necessary. We must avenge this murder and continue to move forward to stop all executions of the poor and of Black people.”

We must put Shaka Sankofa’s words into action and abolish the racist and anti-poor death penalty.