I’ve just watched the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the USA, the first time I’ve ever watched such a ceremony. I now reside in a feeling of immense relief.
Both America and ourselves take pride in our liberal democracies. But there are huge idiosyncrasies on both sides. Our unelected House of Lords is an anathema which over-relies on ‘convention’. In the USA, the power of presidents to pardon criminals is just as big a stain on the US Constitution.
As I climbed Turkey Nab, I thought about the gibbet that used to stand there. It was last used in 1729 when William Parkinson was hung for the murder of a Scottish drover at Great Broughton. He was tried at York assizes and brought back to Turkey Nab for the sentence to be carried out locally. All within fifteen days. Swift justice.
My thoughts turned to another power the US President processes. The power of life and death over those on the Federal death row, which for most means a wait of decades.
Currently there are 49 inmates on the Federal death row and prior to last July, the last execution was carried out in 2001 when Timothy McVeigh was executed for the Oklahoma City bombing when 168 people were killed. Before that we have to go back to 1963.
What happened in July was that Trump abruptly restarted federal executions, and just over a week ago, Lisa Montgomery, the only woman on federal death row became the 11th to die since then. There have been 3 in 2021 alone. The Montgomery case is particularly horrific, her guilt is without doubt yet she was so severely subjected to abuse as a child that it left her mentally impaired which is alone a reason for her not to have been executed.
I am talking about federal executions here. The states can kill people too, but 22 have abolished executions and many more have not exercised the power for some years. But overall, in 2019, America was still sixth in the world for having the most executions after China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Egypt.
Why did Trump go on a killing spree?
Bryan Stevenson, an American lawyer, has written that “capital punishment is the stepchild of lynching“. And therein is the hub, the roots have come out of America’s disturbing racial history.
With the abolition of slavery, the southern Confederate States were faced with the challenge of controlling these freed black communities. It was under this atmosphere that gangs like the Ku Klux Klan were formed which started lynching black men, often for claims of a sexual nature that they’d had relations with white women. There was often no evidence at all, but it was intended as a form of racial terror that was inflicted right across the Confederate States, and spread into other parts of America.
Lynching began to decline in the mid 20th-century, and became substituted by state executions. The transition from the anger and hostility of the Ku Klux Klan into the modern death penalty is one which becomes apparent when considering the statistics which show that black men are more likely to end up on death row. In North Carolina alone:
People of color make up less than 30% of North Carolina’s population but 60% of its death row.
Black defendants are far more likely to be wrongly convicted. Nine of the state’s ten death-row exonerees have been Black or Latinx.
Nearly half of death row were tried by an all-white jury or a jury with just one person of color.
Prosecutors across North Carolina, with consistency across both time and geography, strike Black jurors from capital juries at two and a half times the rate they strike white jurors.
Defendants accused of killing white victims are twice as likely to be sentenced to death.
Three-quarters of those executed had been convicted of killing a white person.
The statistics for other states will be similar.
And so when you see that chap walking through Capitol Hill with that confederate flag, it’s obvious that Trump’s killing spree was an appeal to his base.
Interestingly, Joe Biden was the lead author of Bill Clinton’s 1994 Crime Bill which, inter alia, created 60 new death penalty offences, but he has recently talked about “incentivising” states to move away from the death penalty.
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