A jury-rigged system

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I’ve never favored the death penalty. This has nothing to do with feelings of forgiveness, a need to turn the other cheek or any deep-seated belief that capital punishment is some barbaric beast wreaking havoc in the china closet of civilized society.

If someone murdered or did serious harm to anyone that I love, I don’t suspect I would flinch if that particular someone was caught and put to death. Call me barbaric, but my forgiveness and love of fellow man only goes so far.

But here’s the thing: A society that permits capital punishment has a responsibility to make absolutely sure that this extreme punishment is meted out in a completely fair way with no room for mistakes. None. Because when a mistake is made in a death penalty case, an innocent person gets killed.

It’s bad enough when an innocent person is forced to spend time in prison, but at least there is always the sliver of hope that justice will prevail and the wrongly accused will eventually be set free. Some mistakes can be corrected.

There’s no coming back from the dead. There’s no apology strong enough or big enough to cover up a “mistake” that results in the wrong person being deprived of his or her life.

OK, now here’s another wrinkle. What if someone is on death row for a crime he or she committed, but that same someone was victimized by a screwed-up criminal-justice system? What if the system was purposely stacked against this person? I suppose the easy, gut-level thing to say is that it doesn’t matter. If a few mistakes were made, then that’s just tough. The guy probably did it and he’s gonna fry for it, so that’s good enough.

Except that it isn’t good enough. When life and death and the criminal-justice system are involved, then there is no such thing as “good enough.” The system must work perfectly, guaranteeing no mistakes and ensuring that the accused receives the best legal representation possible. If not, the option of sentencing someone to death should be taken off the table.

What got me started on all this is the Supreme Court’s decision Friday to review the case of Thomas Miller-El, a black Texas man who was scheduled to die by lethal injection on Feb. 21. The high court’s acceptance of the case will stay the execution, for now.

In his petition to the court, Jim Marcus, executive director of the Texas Defender Service and Miller-El’s lawyer, contends that his client’s trial was unfair due to institutional racism within the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office at the time of Miller-El’s trial — and for quite some time prior to that.

Marcus isn’t just playing the race card to jam up the gears of justice while he tries to figure a way to keep his client alive a little longer. Marcus has evidence that is impossible to ignore. He has a very incriminating office memo from the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office. The memo, which prosecutors who have worked in the office openly acknowledge is authentic, urged prosecutors against selecting “Jews, Negroes, Dagos, Mexicans, or a member of any minority race on a jury, no matter how rich or well-educated.”

Marcus’ petition also cited a 1986 report by the Dallas Morning News that found Dallas County prosecutors used peremptory challenges to remove 90 percent of the blacks eligible to serve on the juries in 15 death penalty cases from 1980 to 1986, including Miller-El’s. A peremptory challenge lets a lawyer dismiss a potential juror without having to give a reason why.

Like I was saying, these are facts that are pretty hard to ignore.

But it’s also hard to ignore that Miller-El was tried and convicted for the 1985 shooting death of Douglas Walker during an armed robbery at a hotel. Naturally, Miller-El says he’s innocent, but him saying that doesn’t exactly come as a shock. He wouldn’t be the first guy on death row to say he didn’t do it.

What’s upsetting about this whole deal is that the prosecutors in Miller-El’s trial in 1986 used their peremptory challenges to dismiss 10 of 11 African-Americans who were in the jury pool. Miller-El ended up with a jury made up of nine whites, one Filipino, one Hispanic and one black — and the black juror had said during jury selection that he believed murderers should be tortured.

When 10 of 11 African-Americans are dismissed, the reason why starts to become pretty clear. Add the memo and the Dallas Morning News report to the mix and the reason becomes even clearer: African-Americans and other nonwhites are considered more likely to give their own a “break,” so keep them off juries just to be sure that their warped perspectives and experiences don’t hinder the administration of “justice.”

This brings me back to the reason I can’t support capital punishment and why it needs to be scrapped. In short, the system is rigged, and not just in Texas. To allow a racially and socioeconomically rigged criminal-justice system to sentence anyone to death is a crime all by itself.

This statement doesn’t come as any kind of surprise to those against whom the system is rigged, because they see evidence of the system’s flaws all around them. The flaws in the judicial system often tend to frame the everyday existence of these people. What would be considered intolerable on one side of town is grudgingly accepted as the way things are on the other.

The way things are today is pretty well reflected in the case of Miller-El, who is just one of the disproportionately large number of African-American and poor people on death row. The deck was stacked against the man before he ever set foot in the courtroom.

This doesn’t mean I think the man should be set free. Far from it. If Miller-El truly is guilty of the crime he’s accused of, then he should serve his time. But would it have been asking too much to let the man have a fair trial, one in which the outcome wasn’t so obviously manipulated in advance?

Is it asking too much to believe that black folks, like everybody else, really do want to see black murderers and criminals put away? Trust me when I say that the black community does not harbor a soft spot for the criminal element. Normally I try not to generalize, but I think I’m treading pretty safe ground when I say that.

And I think it’s safe to say that white folks aren’t the only folks who want justice.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-area writer and musician. E-mail [email protected]
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