Death takes a (brief) holiday
Mississippi justice goes national
Black Voices for Peace





"I will continue to do exactly what I've been doing," said Kane County, Illinois prosecutor Meg Gorecki. "I will not let one moment in time, which I don't believe was well reasoned and well thought out, to change a process and a system that has worked."

"One moment in time" spared the lives of 163 Illinois men and four women, but has not swayed the professional practitioners of death.

The "system that has worked" so revulsed outgoing Republican Governor George Ryan, he emptied the state's death row, commuting all sentences to prison terms or less. With just 48 hours left in his term, Ryan instead indicted "bad lawyers, bad prosecutors, bad police [and] bad judges" for perpetuating a system that cannot possibly mete out justice. (Click here for full text of Governor Ryan's remarks.)

Three men were freed outright, victims of forced confessions under torture. A fourth remained in prison on other, non-capital charges for which he may also be innocent. "Here we have four men who were wrongfully convicted and sentenced to die by the state for crimes the courts should have seen they did not commit," said Governor Ryan. "We have evidence from four men who did not know each other, all getting beaten and tortured and convicted on the basis of the confessions they allegedly made. They are perfect examples of what is so terribly broken about our system."

Madison Hobley, Aaron Patterson, Leroy Orange and Stanley Howard had spent 15 to 17 years on death row, victims of an American Gestapo. As the January 11 Los Angeles Times reported:

All were interrogated - and supposedly confessed - at Chicago's Area 2 headquarters, where investigations later revealed the commander, Jon Burge, tortured suspects and oversaw their torture by his detectives during the 1970s and 1980s. An estimated 60 suspects were beaten, given electric shocks, threatened with guns and smothered into unconsciousness.

And what of the other suspects, the "usual" ones? How thick is the human traffic that is smashed into submission and possible death in all the Area 2s of the nation?

Governor Ryan has sung his swan song, which is irrevocable. However, the torture squads will go about their business in Illinois, gathering "evidence" for criminals in suits like John Piland, chief prosecutor in Champaign County and president of the association of state's attorneys. "We're not going to let the governor's action deter us from seeking justice in appropriate cases," said Piland, defiantly.

When Ryan assumed office in 1999, Illinois had already been forced to exonerate more death row inmates than it had succeeded in executing: 12 dead, 13 still alive, largely because of investigations by Northwestern University journalism students and the miracle of DNA evidence. The lifelong supporter of capital punishment imposed a moratorium in 2000.

Opponents of the death penalty hope that Ryan's action, the largest such commutation in modern U.S. history, will at least slow the momentum of death. "I don't know how many times we're going to go through a revolution like this before we conclude that there's no way for humans to make these irrevocable and infallible judgments," said Richard Dieter, of the Death Penalty Information Center.

Death's center of gravity is Dixie, where 86 percent of executions occur, according to the Center's report for 2002. Texas leads the way with 33 executions, followed by Oklahoma (7), Missouri (6), Georgia (4), Virginia (4), Florida (3), South Carolina (3), Ohio (3), Alabama (2), North Carolina (2), and Mississippi (2). A total of 71 people were put to death, nationwide.

As of October 1, 2002, death row was home to 3,697 men, women and juveniles. Only three sentences were commuted in 2002.

Last year, The Justice Project issued an exhaustive report entitled, A Broken System, Part II: Why There Is So Much Error in Capital Cases, and What Can Be Done About It. The study documented a shocking 68% rate of reversal of death verdicts due to trial error.

Justice Project executive director Wayne F. Smith welcomed Governor Ryan's commutations, but warned:

As bad as Illinois' death penalty system is, it is better than most. National studies find that Illinois courts reverse flawed death sentences on average less often than most states. The 37 other states that have the death penalty should take a hard look at their own systems and follow Illinois' lead. The United States Congress should immediately pass, and President Bush should sign into law, the federal Innocence Protection Act. No less than lives and justice are at stake.

More than 100 people have been exonerated from death rows across the country. Innocent people are spending years or decades behind bars for crimes they did not commit. Meanwhile, the real criminals remain free and often go on to commit more violent crimes. We know there's a problem. Let's do something about it.

The "problem" is that "racism has rendered this nation unfit to handle capital punishment," the position taken by The Black Commentator in our inaugural issue, April 5, 2002. The death penalty is a legacy of the enslavement of Africans and extermination of Native Americans, an essential component of the racist American character. That's why the South excels in judicial murder, and the reason that half of death row inmates are Black.

The death penalty is intended for disproportionate use against Blacks. Comparatively speaking, whites who are sentenced to death are those convicted of "the worst of the worst" murders. A 1998 investigation of Georgia's application of the death penalty, for example, showed that African Americans were more than four times as likely as whites to be sentenced to die "even when controlling for the many variables which might make one case worse than another." (Psychologically Unfit: The U.S. Can't Handle the Death Penalty.)

Abolition is the only answer. 167 men and women were spared when a Republican governor, like Saul on the road to Damascus, was made to see the light, and became Paul. Such transformations are rare. The prosecutors of Illinois vow to fill the empty spaces on death row. They are the bloodthirsty problem beyond fixing. The tools of death must be snatched from their hands.

National spotlight on Mississippi justice

Like a dirty little man who can't keep his mind out of the gutter, George Bush can't keep his politics out of Mississippi. The GOP's moral compass seems to consistently point in the direction of the Magnolia State, drawing Republicans ever deeper into the primal swamp of their true nature: the White Man's Party.

For the second time, Bush is attempting to place Federal Judge Charles Pickering on the U.S. Court of Appeals for Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. At 66, Pickering has even more manure on his shoes than his Senate patron, Trent Lott, but Bush cannot turn his back on the racist core of his party, not after turning a stone face to Lott in his hour of nakedness and need. Whether or not Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee succeed in blocking Pickering, this week, he will stand like an old Confederate monument to the Dixiecrat takeover of the GOP.

The Nation's John Nichols provides an excellent account of the GOP's feeble attempt to provide local Black cover for the Pickering nomination. Republican Charles Evers headed a dark pro-Pickering delegation to the White House, where he declared, "It's not the NAACP down there (in Mississippi) that opposes Pickering. It's the Yankees up here." This was news to the Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP, 31 Black state legislators, the Black lawyers' Magnolia Bar Association, Black Congressman Bennie Thompson, and just about every African American Mississippian outside of Evers' clucking little brood on the White House lawn.

Brenda Polkey certainly doesn't want to see Pickering sit in judgment over three states. In 1994, rednecks in Sandy Hook, Mississippi burned a cross on her lawn, after one of them fired a bullet that barely missed her sleeping, 3-year-old child. Prosecutors wanted Daniel Swan to get the full seven years for the cross burning, but Pickering interceded on Swan's behalf and got the sentence reduced to 27 months.

"My faith in the justice system was destroyed when I learned about Judge Pickering's efforts to reduce the sentence of Mr. Swan," wrote Ms. Polkey, in a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The Jackson, Mississippi Clarion-Ledger caught up with Swan, recently. He blames publicity surrounding Pickering's nomination for the bankruptcy of his small trucking business, and believes that he and the judge are the real victims. "Politics are hurting a good man like Pickering and have put me in a real bind," he said. It's just not fair, and it wasn't much of a fire. "There wasn't even any damage to the cedar tree."

No sir, Swan is no racist. "I'm guilty of sticking the cross up and burning it. But I'm not guilty of all the hate crime things they accused me of," he said, leaning against his truck.

Clearly, a case of reverse discrimination. On the U.S. Court of Appeals, a judge like Pickering could rectify injustices like that. Judiciary Committee Republican Orrin Hatch, taking his cues from judicial giant Clarence Thomas, deplores the "legal lynching" of Pickering.

Back in February of last year, when Pickering was facing his first confirmation hearing, editor-in-chief George E. Curry pulled down Pickering's trousers to reveal the bare-assed White Citizens Councilman beneath. Unlike Trent Lott, who never ran for local office before winning a seat in Congress, Pickering did statehouse time with the good old boys back in the bad old days when the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission was in full magnolia. The Commission was set up shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court school desegregation decision, in 1954, to spy on, slander and harass outside- and inside-agitators. Pickering has attempted to distance himself from the shadowy Commission but, as George Curry wrote:

As a state senator, Pickering voted twice to appropriate state money to "defray the expenses" of the commission.

In 1990, Pickering testified at his Senate confirmation hearing, " ... I never had any contact with the Sovereignty Commission." However, commission documents released subsequently, painted a different picture. A staff memo dated, Jan. 5, 1972, noted that Pickering and two other state senators were "very interested" in a commission investigation into union activity at a Laurel, Miss., company, presumably Masonite. It said the senators had "requested to be advised of developments" to infiltrate the union and sought information on the union's leader.

Regardless of how hard they may try, Pickering supporters can't whitewash his white supremacy record.

Thanks to years of legal battles, the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission's records are now accessible online. Sealed for over 20 years by the state legislature, the records provide unique documentation of the world that spawned Trent Lott and Charles Pickering - and the peculiar racial outreach programs of the Bush administration.

"For 17 years, from 1956 to 1973, the commission spied on civil rights workers, acted as a clearinghouse for information on civil rights activities and legislation from around the nation, funneled money to pro-segregation causes, and distributed right-wing propaganda," reads the web site announcement. On the site's history page, we travel back in time to observe the genesis of the segregationist's modern Black strategy:

In 1965, the Commission developed and promoted the Mississippi Negro Citizenship Association. Through this organization the Commission "launched a quiet campaign to encourage qualified Negroes to make applications to vote," hoping to outmaneuver the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) by attracting those they termed the "thinking Negroes of Mississippi."

The courtship of African-American conservatives was consistent with Governor Paul B. Johnson's approach to the integration issue. Mississippi had to appear to be law abiding and in compliance with federal regulations. Image was vital to this scheme, and Erle Johnston and the Commission worked with other state agencies to create Mississippi's new identity. Johnston also took measures to clean up the Commission, instructing removal of all "incriminating" reports, especially those that indicated the Commission helped county registrars stop African-Americans from registering to vote.

Thirty years after the Commission's official shutdown, Charles Evers and his tight little clutch of Mississippi Negro Pickering supporters form a bare quorum on the White House lawn, hoping that their white Republican friends will be gracious enough not to utter the word, "jockey."

Target: MLK

Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday cannot pass without renewed questions being raised about his death. This week's Village Voice features a review of An Act of State: The Execution of Martin Luther King, authored by William Pepper, an associate of King's during the last year of the civil rights leader's life who went on to represent James Earl Ray, the convicted assassin. Pepper and the King family came to believe Ray's claim to have been a patsy. Reviewer Richard Goldstein sums up "the facts, as Pepper presents them."

King was the victim of a contract taken out by mobsters already doing business with the government (e.g., laundering money for the CIA). Ray was their patsy, framed by the Memphis police, who also tampered with the crime scene and manipulated evidence. Military units under the auspices of the Special Forces surrounded the motel where King was staying, serving as a backup unit in case the hit man failed. The FBI, which had planted stories deriding King for staying in white hotels, drew him to the black-owned Lorraine, and his secluded room was changed to one with a very visible balcony. Armed black activists who had stationed themselves in a rooming house overlooking the motel were told to leave just before the killing, as were black officers and firefighters.

Peace Weekend

Black Voices for Peace plan a Washington event, January 20, under the heading: "Fulfilling Dr. King's legacy: Organizing against war and militarism, racism, poverty and injustice - a national training workshop and conference for justice and peace." Monday's training and strategy sessions follow "peace with justice Sunday."

Last Saturday, an estimated 15,000 marched in Los Angeles against militarism and destruction of the social safety net. Protest gear included "Don't Cut Medicare for Bombs and Missiles." Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) and Los Angeles Urban League President John Mack worked the crowd, while Martin Sheen of NBC's "The West Wing" provided star value.

The big event is Saturday, January 18, when a coalition led by A.N.S.W.E.R., Act Now to Stop War and End Racism, will attempt to match or exceed its October 26 turnout of 100,000 in Washington and at least 50,000 in San Francisco.

We share with the reader this appeal from Elias A. Rashmawi, a member of the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition Steering Committee:

An Empire has emerged! It is waging a global war to redefine the boundaries of nation-states, appropriate wealth and resources, install governments, and re-shape policies throughout. It was Afghanistan some months ago. It is Iraq today. There are Korea, Colombia, the Philippines, and Palestine. The examples are too many - Yet, who is next and where?

With every step of imposed destruction, our world is brought closer to a global disaster and the people of the U.S. are pitted against the international community.

A collective answer to the drumbeat of war is a must - we no longer have a choice, or the luxury of time!

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Issue Number 25
January 16, 2003



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Other commentaries in this issue:

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr
Riverside Church, New York City - 4 April 1967

Armstrong Williams' Big Move - Black Personnel Director for GOP Inc

Draft immunity fuels war machine... BC labeled "right wing"... Mediocre whites cry bias

Guest Commentary
A Chicano Looks at the Trent Lott Affair by Jorge Mariscal

Commentaries in Issue 24 January 9, 2003:

No Draft, No Peace - Rangel and Conyers are right

The buying of Rev. Dr. Greedygut... More Confederates in GOP closet... It’s a bitch being rich

GOP says Democrats fund loafers... Democrats charge game is rigged... Pacifica station looking for a GM

High Stakes: Black and Latino parents are demanding better schools and fewer tests - By Eric C. Wat

You can read any past issue of The Black Commentator in its entirety by going to the Past Issues page.