FEATURED POST

In the crosshairs of conscience: John Kitzhaber's death penalty reckoning

Image
To cope with his dread, John Kitzhaber opened his leather-bound journal and began to write.
It was a little past 9 on the morning of Nov. 22, 2011. Gary Haugen had dropped his appeals. A Marion County judge had signed the murderer's death warrant, leaving Kitzhaber, a former emergency room doctor, to decide Haugen's fate. The 49-year-old would soon die by lethal injection if the governor didn't intervene.
Kitzhaber was exhausted, having been unable to sleep the night before, but he needed to call the families of Haugen's victims.
"I know my decision will delay the closure they need and deserve," he wrote.
The son of University of Oregon English professors, Kitzhaber began writing each day in his journal in the early 1970s. The practice helped him organize his thoughts and, on that particular morning, gather his courage.
Kitzhaber first dialed the widow of David Polin, an inmate Haugen beat and stabbed to death in 2003 while already serving a life sentence fo…

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

- Report an error, an omission: deathpenaltynews@gmail.com - Follow us on Facebook and Twitter

Most Viewed (Last 7 Days)

New Hampshire: More than 50,000 anti-death penalty signatures delivered to Sununu

Texas: The accused Santa Fe shooter will never get the death penalty. Here’s why.

Post Mortem – the execution of Edward Earl Johnson

What Indiana officials want to keep secret about executions

China: Appeal of nanny's death penalty sentence wraps up

Ohio: Lawyers seek review of death sentence for 23-year-old Clayton man

In the crosshairs of conscience: John Kitzhaber's death penalty reckoning

Texas prisons taking heat over aging execution drugs experts say could cause 'torturous' deaths

Texas executes Juan Castillo

Iraq court sentences Belgian jihadist to death for IS membership