Thursday, September 22, 2011

"Strange Fruit" Still Hangs in US "Trees"

Troy Davis, Jr. the African American man who was put to death by the authorities of the State of Georgia last night, September 21, 2011, is a reminder that “strange fruit” still hangs from trees, south, north, east and west. Despite lack of DNA evidence, contradictory and retracted eyewitness testimony, and a possible known trigger man, they hung him high. I believe heinous crimes such as cold-blooded murder and rape deserve serious justice; but not eye for an eye, capital punishment justice. I believe in investing
Troy Davis, Jr. Killed, 9/21/11 in Georgia
in rehabilitation and not the herding of people and children into facilities like branded cattle. That said, I admit I could be consumed by anger and pain and my wounds still raw or convinced that the evidence is other than it is, if my loved one(s) were the victims of a horrendous crime. So the criminal justice system should work as objectively and fairly as possible when I as the victim’s family may be incapable of doing so.  We need to be willing to rethink and tweak or abolish systems that are inhumane and unfair. Justice codified or legislated in the socio-historical context of 1844 should necessarily be re-examined. 
Electric Chair at Ohio Pen
Ohio Pen
Dale Johnston, former death row inmate in Ohio
The Ohio Penitentiary, also known as the Ohio State Penitentiary, or less formally, the Ohio Pen or State Pen, was a prison operated from 1834-1983. As a child, teenager, young adult, I could walk to the Ohio Pen in Columbus from where I lived on the other side of the railroad tracks. As elementary school children,  we had a field trip to the Ohio Pen when the ominous electric housed there was still in use. Some field trip!  When I look back it was like being on the scene of a SciFi set. I can remember the huge, old, stalwart, dirty gray building that I passed by every time I road the Fifth Avenue bus.  I never forgot what I saw in that building – the electric chair where they electrocuted human beings until they breathed their last. I remember a very large steel contraption of a chair with leather straps.    So when I visited the Ohio Pen, someone's son, brother, father had not so long ago sat in that chair and someone's son, brother, father was scheduled to die. Somehow I equated the closing of the Ohio Pen with the abolition of the death penalty in Ohio.  Somehow I forgot they were still operating under the system of an eye for and eye in Ohio.  I forgot about the transition from electric chair to lethal injection.  As of August 26, 2011, there are a total of 150 inmates on death row in Ohio: 149 men, 1 woman (74 African American men; 68 Caucasian men; 4 Hispanic men; 1 Native Americans; 2 Arab American; 1 Caucasian female).  On March 15, 2011, Ohio legislators introduced a bill to abolish the death penalty in Ohio. Among those who spoke in favor of the bill were Dale Johnston, an Air force veteran and exonerated former death row inmate, and Ohioans to Stop Executions (people across party lines).  In 1982 Dale Johnston’s  daughter and her boyfriend were murdered and their bodies dismembered. Dale was the only person the police considered as a suspect. Numerous violations of Dale’s rights occurred during the investigation and trial.  Still, he was sentenced to death in 1984. “He believes the state expected his attorneys to abandon him once his initial trial was over. But they stood by him, promising to eventually win his exoneration. ‘I never thought I would be convicted of a crime I did not do,’ he says.  ‘I was sure once all the evidence was presented, it would be clear that I was innocent and could then get back home and the police would get on with the investigation of the kids’ death.  I could not believe my ears when the judges said ‘guilty.’ Even with all the rule violations, the phony evidence and the prosecutorial misconduct, there was nothing presented to gain a conviction.’ He remained on Ohio’s death row for more than five years and was incarcerated for more than seven years. The Ohio Supreme Court overturned Dale’s conviction in 1988 because the prosecution withheld exculpatory evidence from the defense and because one witness had been hypnotized. The state later dropped all charges against him. He was released in 1990.”  In Georgia, Troy Davis was not so lucky as Johnston or others who have been exonerated or pardoned. Unfortunately, until we abolish capital punishment everywhere, more people who are not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and/or innocent will die for crimes they did not commit, not to mention the years of their lives lost imprisoned.
            DNA testing has saved a number of people convicted of crimes. The first DNA exoneration took place in 1989. Exonerations have been won in 34 states.  Since 2000, there have been 206 exonerations. Seventeen (17) of the 273 people exonerated through DNA served time on death row.  The average length of time served by exonerees is 13 years.  Currently, it seems to me that the death penalty or capital punishment operates like a firing squad. We line people up and we shoot.  It is okay if we accidentally put one or two innocent people in the line up as long the rest are guilty. Or God forbid that in some peoples’ minds it doesn’t matter as long as somebody (and that somebody has historically been somebody black or otherwise undesirable by the majority) pays for the crime. If a person on death row has a criminal record, some people reason that he has "blood on his hands" anyway. And therefore they didn't consider killing him such a great loss. A kind of since-we-got-you-here logic, we might as well. I wonder if this was the case with Davis and what it means for justice, second chances, and the value of a life lived imperfectly ending up in the wrong hands?

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