jewel bush: Abolish the death penalty; let Gruesome Gertie die

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jewel bush

Less than three months passed between the arrest of George Junius Stinney Jr. and his execution. The whole Stinney trial took only one day – including jury selection.

The year was 1944 in Alcolu, a South Carolina town established by a lumber company in the late 19th century. All of the townsfolk worked for the mill; and in fact, were paid in metal coins emblazoned with the letter “A;” legal tender accepted at the company store to pay for everything from groceries to a doctor’s visit.

Stinney was 14 when he sat in the electric chair using the Bible he carried into the death chamber as a booster seat. From the looks of his mug shot, Stinney could have passed for as young as 12 when he was found guilty of two counts of first-degree murder of two pre-teen white girls by an all-white jury in a town that was more than half black.

It didn’t matter that the confession was coerced or that several people who could have provided an alibi for him were not allowed to testify. Stinney was questioned without his parents or a lawyer present.

Stinney is the youngest person executed in the United States in the 20th century.

Three years later and closer to home, 18-year-old Willie Francis was electrocuted for the murder of a St. Martinville pharmacist. It is believed that Francis was sexually abused by this man, his employer. He was 16 at the time of the crime.

The first time Francis went to the execution chamber to mount Gruesome Gertie, the nickname inmates gave the Louisiana electric chair, the chair malfunctioned in the first known incident of a failed execution by electrocution in the United States. The chair had been improperly set up. Accounts tell of Francis screaming for his life: “Take it off! Take it off! Let me breathe!”

A year later, Gruesome Gertie delivered without fail and Francis died in that electric chair at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

The stories of Stinney and Francis are not relics of history. This happens today where poverty, racism, rushed court proceedings and a flawed legal system eager to convict locks up and executes the most marginalized of society.

And Rep. Joe Lopinto wants to bring back Gruesome Gertie.

If passed, his legislation, HB 328 will do just that, reinstating the electric chair as a form of capital punishment in Louisiana after 23 years.

Lopinto says the state needs a “backup plan” to carry out executions since pharmaceutical companies are growing increasingly reluctant to sell the death drugs making it harder to comply with execution protocol and resulting in execution delays.

Eighty-seven men and women await execution in Louisiana, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Louisiana’s death row is comprised largely of inmates who were younger than 21 at the time of the crime, those who suffered severe emotional and physical childhood trauma and people with mental illness and intellectual disabilities. In 2005, the Supreme Court in Roper v. Simmons struck down the death penalty for juveniles; 22 defendants had been executed for crimes committed as juveniles since 1976.

What is more cruel and unusual than condemning the young, the vulnerable to death at the behest of a criminal justice and legal system that we know is gravely defective?

At its core, the death penalty is discriminatory and is used disproportionately against the poor and minorities. In 96% of states where there have been reviews of race and the death penalty, there was a pattern of either race-of-victim or race-of-defendant discrimination, or both. (Prof. Baldus report to the ABA, 1998).

Eighteen states have abolished the death penalty altogether — most recently Maryland in May 2013 and Connecticut in April 2012.

On March 11, Glenn Ford, Louisiana’s longest-serving death row prisoner was released from death row and exonerated after an informant told police that the real killer — one of the original suspects — confessed to the 1983 murder.

Death penalty exonerations continue at a high rate. Of the 1,281 individual exonerations from 1989 to 2013, 92 percent were men and about 62 perent of those were people of color. Twelve defendants received posthumous exonerations.

Contrary to some arguments, capital punishment does not deter crime. The South has the highest murder rate and accounts for more than 80% of executions, based on data from the 2011 FBI Uniform Crime Report.

Are we a society of barbarians where we sentence our citizens to irrevocable punishment and advocate for death instruments like Gruesome Gertie?

Why not abolish capital punishment in our state, and use the money and energy spent trying to score drugs for lethal injection to reform prisons? Here’s another radical notion: Maybe we should invest those resources in overhauling our education system. Or creating jobs programs. Or fair housing — instead of killing those we deem as the throwaways of society “by any means necessary.”

Almost 70 years later, Stinney’s family is seeking a new trial to clear his name while legislation in Louisiana, Wyoming and Tennessee want to make electrocution legal again.

jewel bush, a New Orleans native, is a writer whose work has appeared in The (Houma) Courier, The Washington Post, The Times-Picayune, New Orleans Homes & Lifestyles Magazine, and El Tiempo, a bilingual Spanish newspaper. In 2010, she founded MelaNated Writers Collective, a multi-genre group for writers of color in New Orleans dedicated to cultivating the literary, artistic and professional growth of emerging writers. Her three favorite books are Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Catcher in the Rye, and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

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