The Death Penalty and Injustice Toward Minorities

by Robert Talib Douglas on Death Row in Pennsylvania.

First thing, Prison is no place for a person to be who can't handle pressure especially on death row, where it is a very tense atmosphere and very unpredictable. I'm just one of many who have felt the pain and experienced the injustice of being a minority in the belly of the system, (Death Row). I sit on death row after being convicted of first degree murder without a single witness at trial saying I had committed such an act (crime). The people who run the criminal court system are professionals in how to prove and make one guilty of a crime he/she faces (is charged with). It's called a smoke screen, you only see what they want the jury or judge to see, and hide and withold evidence that would prove one's innocence. On death row, some men have given up hope of being free (no-self esteem) at all. Myself ? I have self-realization of being free and home with my family.

One of the first of many questions a death row prisoner is asked, What is it like there? Well for one ,no one individual feels the same, because you are totally in a 6x8 foot cell isolated 23-24 hours a day, with the exceptions of... One hour yard five days a week in a cage that one would see at an SPCA where they keep animals, three fifteen minute showers a week, and if you sign up for law-clinic that's two hours. You can only recieve a one hour visit a week, not allowed any holiday or weekend visits (when family/friends are off work & children are out of school). Each time one leaves his cell, he is handcuffed from the back, except for visits, then one is handcuffed in the front attached to a belt around your waist. As for the officers (guards) there are just a couple with a human heart, but majority are biased, always trying to dehumanize a person. My method? Try not to allow them to rent space in my head and keep my focus on my objective (getting out).

Now for an insight on this unjust system towards minorities. The majority of the public don't know that the politicians have been using the death penalty to enchance their elections to office for years. Now the same strategy is being taken up by Judges & Prosecutors, regardless that they are entrusted by the law to persue justice with an even hand. Also the District Attorney's are entrusted with unviewable decision whether which case he/she should seek the death penalty, and run for office pleading to have more people executed.

A quick history lesson; From 1930 to 1967 of the 3,850 people send to their death 54% were African American and once again the majority of death row prisoners are African Americans. It was these conditions that lead to the Supreme court's invalidation of the death penalty in the 1970's. Now the same thing has arisen in the 1990's today : the rate African Americans were setenced to death was neary 40% higher that the rate of other eligible defendants. IS the 38 States with the death penalty laws, 794 prosectors were white, 56 were black, 22 were hispanic. IN the state I reside (Pennsylvania) according to a law professors and the statisticians who have examined cases between 1983 and 1993 for the Death Penalty Information Center, when all factors were equal, black defendants were sentenced to death at a rate of 42% higher than others. As of July 1998 there are 223 defendants on death row here in Pennsylvania;139 blacks, 71 whites, ll hispanic and 2 asians.

Nationally, politicans convince society that there is a need for the death penalty by flaunting the Jeffery Dahmers,John Wyane Gaceys and Ted Bundys. Now with the addition of child killer Jesse Timmondequa and Oklahoman bomber Timothy McVeigh, they are always spotlighting such high profile defendants, but label us all as psychopathic killers.

In Pennsylvania when the talks about the death penalty arise, the politicians feed the media who then feeds the public and spotlight the most high profile cases, such as Gary Hidnik, Harty Graham and Mumia Abu Jamal, but you never hear talk about the cases with very little circumstantial evidence. Once again their smoke screen (only get to see what they want you to see).

In Philadelphia alone, 95% of death row prisoners are minorities,and more than 65% are black. There was a time in Philadelphila when the state funded an Public Defender Program. The result of the prisoners having experienced & dedicated lawyers was "shocking". Death row prisoners were being aquitted or given lesser sentences. The politicans who ran for office saw what was happening an took away funding for the program to win office and then brought in death penalty juries, the ones who favor the death penalty. Then 85% of defendants that were eligible were sentenced to death.

Our society needs to realize and understand that the only ones who benefit from execution are the politicans, putting a person to death does not deter crime (never did, never will). It's used as a stepping stone to boost their careers and move up the political ladder. They continue to blind the public of the injustices done unto minorities and why so many blacks are the ones on death row.

Lets examine some key points: Now 90% of death penalty cases against blacks and minorities are lost from the start,because of the inexperienced lawyers they recieve. Only top District Attorneys with at least 10-12 years of experience prosecute death penalty cases. The majority of minorities facing these charges have little to no income and cannot afford a good lawyer, so one is given, free of charge. Yeah. One that may be fresh out of law school for a year or two and other lawyers who may have never handled a death penalty case in there entire short career. A lawyer who works for the Center for Legal Education Advocacy & Defense Assistance spoke of this last year; "I have handled cases where the lawyer who is appointed as guardian of a defendant's life is someone who has been out of law school 15 months." Also, I have seen a case in which the appointed lawyer was a divorce lawyer who had never handled a homicide case. She had done court appointed family matters and if she did not accept the death penalty case, she was going to lose her livelihood and not be able to contuine taking cases for which she is qualified for. What kind of sentence did her client recieve ? I don't have to tell you. You know (Death). I myself had a lawyer on one of my appeal stages. After he filed my brief, I recieved a letter from him stating that he had never filed or handled a death penalty case before, and you know the result of the appeal? (I'm sitting here!!).

Some of the men here are first time offenders who committed their crimes while high on drugs or alcohol and not in their right state of mind, but the prosecutor seems to get the public to believe that all people on death row are there because they deserve to die. Well if one believes in the death penalty, one must also believe in justice. No one can make this kind of statement unless one has absolute assurance that the defendant had a fair trial. It's part of the constitution. So ask yourself this question: is it fair for the defendant to be assigned a lawyer with very little experience or none at all in a death penalty case and have to go up against a prosecutor who has 10-12 years of experience in captial murder cases?

When the pubic is not aware, then they start cutting corners and it doesn't matter who the defendant is,as long as he's a poor one. Prosecutors are prone to cheat,they wine and dine witnesses, purchase them things at times to win their trust, imply bad things in their heads concerning the defendant and why he is guilty and should be convicted of the crime he's charge with. Then, during trial is able to coerce them to say and agree with everything to help them obtain their conviction. Also, they (prosecutors) like to go into prisons and get inmates to lie and say that the defendant told them about the crime he committed. The inmate would say under oath in front of the judge or jury that he wasn't promised anything for his testimony or recieved any compensation. So, a question that might come to mind, why would an inmate come out the blue sky & become a witness and put his own life in jeopardy while still in jail? But you must remember that these people you are dealing with are professionals and have ways of compensating an inmate for his testimony. Example: once a prisoner testified against another inmate, he then is tranfered to a better jail for their safety, then is told to file a reconsideration petition to their judge who knows ahead of time that its coming, by the prosecutor informing him of the help he recieved to get a murder conviction (note: at times they may use this in other cases,) then the inmate gets early parole for a reason no one knows and 97% when seeking help from inmates believe me they are murder cases.

Its in a discussion in the higher courts at this time, about prosecutors that are using jail house snitches to help them win a conviction. Then they're the judges that take sides with the prosecutors. I just read in the papers the other day, how there was a delay in a trial beccause of a missing witness (police officer). The judge stopped the trial and told his clerk to find out where the witness was and I'll go get him. And yes, the judge left the courtroom, got into his personal car and went and picked up the witness and brought him to trial. What was the outcome for the defendant? Guilty!!

Then there are the juries who are biased (will talk on that a little later). One Philadelphila police officer, a 12-15 year vet, named Jack Baird who was arrested for corruption along with other officers and stated in Federal Court; routinely police officers lie under oath and fabricate evidence, especially against blacks, now remember this a person who took an oath to uphold the law.

Now for juries. The top district attorney, Lyann Abraham, was running for re-election against a former district attorney, Jack McMahon, who became a defense attorney. What enabled Abraham to win the election is she brought out a viedo tape that McMahon had made while working under her,showing young prosecutors how to pick a jury that will convict. Now this tape was some 10-12 years old,some of the things that were said on the tape; "Keep certain blacks off juries, especially young black females from low-income areas off murder cases, like the ones from around 33rd & Diamond because they "STINK". You don't want smart people they will try to analyze the hell out of the case. They have higher standards. They will take the word reasonable doubt and will actually try to think about it. You really don't want teachers or social workers.But maybe a white teacher who works at a black school, she may be tired & sick of these guys, but its bad luck with teachers, social workers and doctors" Without them is the only way that you can get an unfair jury that will convict. The prosecutor aims not to get a fair, impartial jury, but only one that will convict.

Even Abraham showed her bais once when she was a judge presiding over a murder case involving nine defendants. 1 black & 8 hispanics. The victim was white. She told the defendant's family & friends who wore ribbons to show support for their loved ones, to remove the ribbons because she (Abraham) didn't want any voodoo in her court room. One of her clerks told her during jury selection, an ideal jury consists of 12-Archie Bunkers (this was a old TV show back in the eary 70's of a white man who didn't like blacks or hispanics). Now with this kind of biased people running the system, how can a minority recieve a fair trial? When the playing field is so uneven from the start?

Now here are some quotes from judges and politicans around the state.

"Well I will go along with that as long as you allow me after the sentence to reach down my left leg and come up with my pistol and shoot the defendant right between the eyes" - Florida Judge Richard Stanley

Another one tells the defendant, "I'm only doing God's work to see that you are put to death." - Texas Judge, William Harmon

Now again, with this kind of climate it is extremely difficult for a person who may be well innocent to obtain a fair trial. As I stated before they only show one side of things, you don't get to hear stories like the 28 men who serve a total of 197 years on death row before establishing their innocence. A state representative had this to say about that, "If an innocent person was put to death, thats fine and dandy with me. I'11 take the percentage" - Rep-Leslie Johnson of Arizona.

There is another story about an inmate who stayed on death row for 12 years and six hours before he was to be put to death, he was given a stay, which lead to a new trial and then personal freedom. The sad fact about cases like these, is that most prosecutors know from the start that the person is innocent and almost put to his death, but the prosecutor continues their zealous ways of proving other innocent people guilty by any means and will never admit that they almost put a innocent person to death. They are just concerned with moving up the political ladder. These days some lawyers are just as bad. Some don't really care if a defendant lives or dies, it's all about the money.

I had a lawyer assigned to my case for over 3 years. During that time I had written him over 20 letters, leaving messages at his office by phone, but still this lawyer never answered one of my pleads. But these are the type of court appointed lawyers we are assigned 90% of the times. Next thing this lawyer files your appeal without your knowledge, until you recieve a letter from the Courts that your appeal was turned down. Now ask your self this, Is it right for a lawyer to file an appeal on that person's behalf without communication with the most important person at trial, the defendant? This causes issues to be overlooked and years to get another court to hear them.

There's an investigation going on against a Resource Center in Florida that handles death penalty cases. One lawyer exposed how they have a betting pool set up on who lives or who dies. Their job is to defend, not to gamble on that person's life.

So you see? Nothing is fair towards minorities in this system. It's about who has the money and power. I'm often asked, "What keeps me strong?" Number one is my faith in "ALLAH" (GOD), then I have my son & daughter, along with my family, children who energize me through letters and talking to them on the phone. But, the must important people, I have to say are my sister (Rita) and my brother (Ron) they've always been there for me, they encourage me to always look for the light at the end of the tunnel, but not to stand back and look at it, but be a part of it, of the uncertain brightness, and that the uncertainties which will give me the incentive to go deeper & deeper until I reach that Light (freedom).

There are others who came into my life by letters. They have become family to me,they all help me to maintain balance and stay positive and look forward to that brighter day, and with all this put into one and "ALLAH'S" Blessing, I vindicate myself not just off death row, but out of jail. While I'm here, I spend time helping the other brothers. I find that some are innocent and that most shouldn't have recieved the death penalty from the start. Their cases didn't meet the criteria, but in the eyes of the politicians they do. They're poor & expendable.

People like Thurgood Harshall, Hartin Luther King III, Justice William Breman and Harvey Blackman would probably never be appointed to any Federal Court. Why? Because they hold the minorities' point of view of the injustice that's being done to them. But then again still the politicans will continue to convince society that it's fair!!!!

by Robert Talib Douglas (Graterford death row prisoner)


If you would like to send stamped envelopes to Talib to help him get his letters to me, or if you would like to send him or I any comments regarding our correspondence, please click here to email me.

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