A rising chorus of voices has raised questions on the link between race and capital punishment in America. The answers are unveiling a pervasive problem with our criminal justice system.
The upcoming documentary Race to Execution reveals that when five or more white males sit on a capital trial jury, there is a 70 percent chance of a death penalty outcome. If there are four or fewer white males, the chance of a death sentence is only 30 percent. Racial differences again crop up on death row: Once sentenced to execution, felons of color are much less likely to gain a stay than are whites.
Directed by Emmy Award–winning filmmaker Rachel Lyon, the program traces the fates of two death row inmates — one white and one Black — and exposes factors that influence who lives and who dies at the hands of the state. It is being screened at Seattle’s Northwest Film Forum on Feb. 24.
The film neither defends nor condemns the death penalty, but it does assert that the race of both the victim and the accused deeply influences the legal process, ranging from how a crime is investigated, to the use of police resources, to the interrogation and arrest of suspects, to how media portray the crime, to jury selection and sentencing.
John Page, who will be one of four speakers following the screening, says race is a huge factor in determining not only who gets the death penalty, but who goes to prison. Page works in the Monroe Correctional Complex to integrate prisoners back into society, and continually sees the racial imbalance of the Western Washington state prison’s inmates.
“National statistics show that the majority of drug users in the U.S. are white, yet the majority convicted of such crimes are Black,” he says, “Something else is going on here.”
While African Americans make up less than 13 percent of the U.S. population, according to the Census Bureau), they make up at least 43 percent of death row, and those who murder whites are more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murder Blacks, says Andrea Crabtree, vice chair of the Washington Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (WCADP). She will speak from her stance that capital punishment is racist and punishes the poor.
While current Washington state capital punishment law is spelled out (RCW Chapter 10.95), investigative journalist and senior editor of In These Times Magazine, Silja Talvi, questions if there is a concrete formula followed within our justice system, as deals are struck and some of the worst offenders, such as Green River murderer Gary Ridgway, one of the most prolific serial killers in American history, continue to live.
Talvi is impressed with the balanced view presented in the documentary, but she will address issues the film doesn’t cover, such as how comfortable courts are sentencing offenders to life without parole, which she says is essentially the death penalty. She will also speak to the dire impact of the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which sharply curtailed the right of inmates to challenge their convictions and sentences, thus speeding up the process.
Local media activist Karen Toering, who is heading up the event, believes the film will spark much-needed public dialogue on what being “locked up” really means for prisoners of color.
By ANGIE JONES, Contributing Writer
[Watch the film]
Race to Execution. Screening Feb. 24 at 4 p.m. at Northwest Film Forum, 1515 - 12th Ave, Seattle. More information: www.nwfilmforum.org. Free with RSVP to: [email protected] or call 1(800)930-6060. Broadcast premiere March 27 at 10 p.m. on PBS: www.pbs.org/independentlens/racetoexecution.
For copy of actual issue, go to https://www.realchangenews.org/2007/02/21/feb-21-2007-entire-issue