Killing is wrong. Killing Black people because they are Black is even more wrong. Lynching Black people is exponentially wrong. So, why was I opposed to the state-imposed killing of John William King, the despicable murderer of James Byrd, Jr.? Because the death penalty is inhumane and it should be abolished.
I also happen to think that there are worse things that can happen to you than death. The now 44-year old King could have gotten a sentence of life in prison and lived miserably there for the rest of his life. In some ways, death is salvation for him. Imagine being relatively healthy with nothing to look forward to? Just sitting there, in jail, surrounded by the Black people your White supremacist self purports to hate. That might be torture worse than death.
Byrd was dragged for almost three miles near Jasper, Tex. in 1998. King and two other men (one whose death penalty sentence was carried out in 2011, the other was sentenced to life in prison) were found guilty of one of the most horrific hate crimes in modern U.S. history.
Byrd’s family was present at the execution in Huntsville, Tex. Byrd’s sister, Clara Taylor, noted that King, who maintained his innocence, neither showed remorse when he was convicted nor when he was executed. He never acknowledged and never looked at James Byrd, Jr.’s family.
But, does this man, whose body sported such racist tattoos, according to one news source, as “one of a Black man with a noose around his neck hanging from a tree” deserve the death penalty? I still say no. Keep that filth alive and keep him miserable. His execution creates a martyr for White supremacists. Had he lived he would have evolved into nothing more than pitiful irrelevance.
The death penalty ought to be abolished nationally. It has already been abolished in 20 states, with moratoriums on executions in other states — most recently in California, thanks to Gov. Gavin Newsome.
There are racial biases replete in the application of the death penalty, with numerous studies supporting the many ways the death penalty is unfairly awarded.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), nearly 1,500 people had their death sentences carried out between 1976 and now. Despite the fact that African Americans are just 13 percent of the nation’s population, we were more than a third of those executed after receiving a death sentence. People who killed White people were far more likely to get the death penalty than people who kill Black people.
The DIPC reports that Washington state jurors were “three times as likely to recommend a death sentence for a Black defendant than a White one.” In Louisiana, someone who killed a White person was nearly twice as likely to get the death penalty as one who killed a Black person. The death penalty is applied through a racial lens — based on the race of the criminal and the race of the victim.
From that perspective, the man who murdered Byrd committed a crime so egregious that even a jury of his peers acted contrary to the statistics. They voted to execute an avowed racist White man who participated in the brutal murder of a Black man.
But, I am also reminded of the 1920 Tulsa, Okla. lynching of Ray Belton, an 18-year old White man who shot a taxi driver. Though Belton confessed to his crime and said it was “an accident,” he was denied the due process of a trial and conviction. After his lynching, a Black newspaper editor opined that if a White person could be lynched, so could a Black person.
A year later, the attempted lynching of the Black shoeshine “boy” Dick Rowland because of the false accusation that he assaulted the White elevator operator Sarah Page, was the spark that led economically envious Whites to destroy the Greenwood (aka “Black Wall Street”) section of Tulsa.
This walk down history lane is extremely relevant to the present. If we could execute Byrd’s White murderer (I try not to mention the names of devils more than is necessary), our system can surely execute a Black person accused of something, whether they did it or not. Applying the death penalty erodes our humanity, whether the accused is guilty or not.
I think it is far more appropriate to let a reprobate like Byrd’s killer simmer in his repugnance. If he had lived his life in prison, with no hope, no help, no possibilities, that would have been a greater punishment than death. While I respect the Byrd family and ache with them over his gruesome murder, I would prefer a punishment for racist murderers that is both humane and inhumane.
We don’t execute them because we don’t stoop as a society to the level of committing a crime we abhor. We ignore them and exacerbate their misery by reminding them that they have no hope of release.
Julianne Malveaux is an author and economist. For booking or info on her latest project, MALVEAUX! On UDCTV, visit juliannemalveaux.com.