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America Is Stuck With the Death Penalty for (At Least) a Generation

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With Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement, the national fight to abolish capital punishment will have to go local.
When the Supreme Court revived capital punishment in 1976, just four years after de facto abolishing it, the justices effectively took ownership of the American death penalty and all its outcomes. They have spent the decades since then setting its legal and constitutional parameters, supervising its general implementation, sanctioning its use in specific cases, and brushing aside concerns about its many flaws.
That unusual role in the American legal system is about to change. With Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the court this summer, the Supreme Court will lose a heterodox jurist whose willingness to cross ideological divides made him the deciding factor in many legal battles. In cases involving the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, his judgment often meant the difference between life and death for hundreds of death-row pr…

America's death penalty capital: can a black DA really change the system?

James Stewart
James Stewart
Shreveport, the seat of Caddo Parish, is tucked in Louisiana’s north-west corner, bordering small towns in Texas and Arkansas. It has bayous, weeping willows, shotgun houses, and blues music, but lacks joie de vivre. It is the sober man’s New Orleans.

The area distinguishes itself with a grim fact: between 2010 and 2014, it sentenced more people to death than any other place in the US. It is also the home of Dale Cox, Caddo Parish’s former acting district attorney, a man responsible for a third of Louisiana’s death row inmates since 2011.

Cox’s reputation came to a head last year, when Rodricus Crawford was sentenced to death for smothering his one-year-old son amid a flurry of doubts and unanswered questions about the case. Cox had been instrumental in getting the death penalty verdict, and features by 60 Minutes and the New Yorker had depicted him as a callous man dismissive of racism, working in an office where a colleague had a Ku Klux Klan leader’s portrait hanging on a wall.

This might shock outsiders far more than Caddo Parish residents. According to researchers who used Google searches data of the N-word to measure racism, it is among the most racist places in the country.

And yet, last November, an African American judge named James Stewart was elected to succeed Cox, largely thanks to the town’s large black voting block.

Although black DAs are rare, they aren’t so unusual as to warrant the kind of national attention Stewart’s campaign received. The lingering question in everyone’s mind: can a black DA change a criminal justice system tarnished by accusations of racism? Would his election be more than just a symbolic victory?

I met Stewart in an office at Zion Baptist Church, where he is a longtime member. He is an archetypal southern black man: deep voice, dark skin, big body. He is confident and intelligent but also matter-of-fact and approachable – a winning political combination.

Raised in Shreveport, his father was a postman, which made him well-to-do. A child of desegregation, he was among the first wave of black students to integrate the city’s main high school. He bypassed attending one of the state’s black colleges – rare at the time – in favor of the relatively new University of New Orleans, and worked as a parish prosecutor, then judge.

Last summer, around the time national media began scrutinizing Caddo Parish’s capital cases, billboards appeared around the city beseeching Stewart to run. A short while later, a group of about 40 attorneys – the most prominent of whom were white – held a press conference to publicly cajole him into running. Referring to it as his “calling” moment, he finally decided to answer yes.

District attorneys arguably have the most powerful role in the criminal justice system; they get more than 90% of the accused to take plea bargains before they ever see a judge. While people of color comprise a majority of those in the criminal justice system, their fates are controlled by prosecutors who are 95% white, and race is no predictor of how black prosecutors will approach cases.


Source: The Guardian, Yolanda Young, March 13, 2016

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