February 15, 2007 — Vol. 42, No. 27
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Harvard Law hosts Hub debut of death penalty doc

Dan Devine

“We can’t tell you to sit back and enjoy the film, but we can tell you to sit back and think.”

With those words, Jim Lopes introduced “Race to Execution,” a documentary exploring what the filmmakers called “the shameful open secret” of how race influences capital punishment in America.

The film made its Greater Boston debut at Harvard Law School in Cambridge last Thursday, one of over 35 community screenings around the country in advance of the documentary’s March 27 national premiere on the Emmy Award-winning PBS series “Independent Lens.”

The screening was followed by a panel discussion moderated by Harvard Law School Professor Charles J. Ogletree Jr., director of the law school’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice and the film’s narrator. Panelists included “Race to Execution” co-producer Lopes and director/co-producer Rachel Lyon, U.S. District Judge Nancy Gertner and Boston Globe columnist Derrick Z. Jackson.

The film tells the story of two African American inmates on Death Row, tracing their path through the criminal justice system from suspicion through sentencing and beyond.

Robert Tarver, of Russell County, Ala., was charged with the Sept. 1984 robbery and murder of Hugh Kite, a 63-year-old white general store owner.

An ex-convict on parole, Tarver was found guilty based on the testimony of one witness — his co-defendant, Andrew Lee Richardson, whom Tarver’s attorney argued gave false testimony in exchange for leniency on his own capital charge. While the prosecution denied any such agreement existed, Richardson later pled guilty to a single count of robbery and received a 25-year prison sentence.

Though the jury recommended imprisoning Tarver for life without parole, the trial court judge overrode their recommendation and imposed a death sentence. Following post-conviction proceedings, appeals and a February 2000 stay of execution by the U.S. Supreme Court, Tarver was electrocuted on April 14, 2000. He was 52.

In the second case, Chicago resident Madison Hobley was charged with arson after a 1987 apartment blaze that killed seven people, including Hobley’s wife and son. Hobley claims he was beaten and tortured by Chicago police officers following his arrest.

“They said they didn’t care who did it. As far as they were concerned, I was a nigger, and I did it, and they had me,” said Hobley in the documentary.

The officers claimed that Hobley had signed a written confession, but that a spilled cup of coffee had destroyed the document.

After 16 years of maintaining his innocence, Hobley and three other condemned men were exonerated in 2003 by then-Illinois Gov. George Ryan, who later commuted the death sentences of every Death Row inmate in the state. Ryan took the unprecedented step after becoming convinced of significant faults in the state’s capital punishment procedures.

During the panel discussion, Lyon pointed out that the film intends neither to assume the subjects’ innocence nor debate the moral justification for capital punishment — it aims instead to raise the question of fairness in how the death penalty is used.

“I believe that Robert Tarver was deeply involved in the death of Hugh Kite,” said Lyon after the film. “But it was important to me to show that [the prosecution] didn’t prove it, and that it didn’t need to be proved” for the jury to sentence Tarver to death.

The film discusses several reasons why the defendants’ guilt didn’t need to be proven, including the negative media coverage of alleged criminals of color and inequities in the racial makeup of the juries that decide their cases.

The juries that sentenced Tarver and Hobley to death were both comprised of 11 whites and one African American. The prosecutor at Tarver’s trial rejected all but one of the African Americans qualified for jury service.

According to the film, minorities are frequently excluded from juries because prosecutors perceive them to be opposed to the death penalty, a reality confirmed by Gertner, a federal judge.

“With very few exceptions, federal juries are overwhelmingly white,” she said.

The film cites recent research indicating that when five or more white males sit on a capital trial jury, there is a 70 percent chance of a death penalty outcome, compared to only a 30 percent chance with four or fewer white males.

Another element is the absence of competent defense counsel at trial. Neither Tarver’s nor Hobley’s lawyers had ever tried a murder case before. Tarver’s attorney was also a friend of the deceased.

The net effect is the sense that the deck is stacked against minorities charged with serious crimes, a feeling related in the documentary by journalist Sam Harper, who corresponded with Tarver while covering his case for the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer newspaper.

“I began to get a sense that maybe this was a case that had been decided before it went to court,” Harper said.

In that respect, Ogletree said the cases of Tarver and Hobley are indicative of a deeper structural inequality within the American judicial system.

“These cases are a metaphor for a flawed system, and that’s not a way to seek justice,” said Ogletree.

Prior to the March 27 national release of “Race to Execution” on PBS, Lopes said two more free community screenings will be held in Massachusetts — Feb. 20 at 7 p.m. at The Democracy Center, 45 Mt. Auburn Street in Cambridge; and March 10 at 3 p.m. at the Southern New England School of Law, 333 Faunce Corner Road in North Dartmouth.

The film will air in the Boston area on Sunday, April 1 at 9 p.m. on WGBH 44.

Filmmaker Jim Lopes (left) and director Rachel Lyon (right) enlisted Harvard Law School Professor Charles J. Ogletree Jr. (center) to narrate their documentary “Race to Execution,” an exploration of the role of race in the prosecution of capital punishment cases. Harvard Law hosted a free screening of the film last Thursday. (Photo courtesy of Lioness Media Arts)

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