Documentary Examines the Race to Execution


On Thursday, February 8, 2007, Climenko Professor of Law Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., hosted a preview screening of Race to Execution, an upcoming PBS documentary examining American death penalty policies.

Filmmaker Rachel Lyon found inspiration for the project in the work of her own sister, public defender Andrea Lyon, who has tried over 130 murder cases in Chicago. Lyon co-produced the film with entertainment and media attorney, Jim Lopes (HLS ’74).

The film follows two African-American Death Row inmates, Madison Hobley of Chicago, Illinois and Robert Tarver of Alabama. Unlike many recent documentaries dealing with the death penalty, Race to Execution does not only examine the victims of false convictions. Hobley was originally incorrectly sentenced to death, and later exonerated, for an arson case that took the lives of seven people, including his own wife and child. Tarver was convicted and executed for the murder of a white businessman, a crime in which many believe he did play a part.

Rachel Lyon, said she does believe that Tarver was “deeply involved in the [crime],” but wanted to show that the legal system was sloppy in its zeal to convict him. “It was important to me to show that they didn’t prove it,” she said.

These stories are peppered with academic and statistical background by several anti-death penalty activists, including Andrea Lyon, author Scott Turow (HLS ’78), and NYU Law School Professor Bryan Stevenson.

From an opening shot of an electric chair, the film quickly turns to a discussion of race, with a focus on the impact of race upon procedural decision-making. Once white male jurors reach the majority, the jury becomes 70% more likely to give death penalty. “The face of crime for most people is a dark face,” said Andrea Lyon.

Turow concurs, “I think race is the overwhelming element in our criminal justice system.”

According to the 1985 Baldus Study, the race of the accused, as well as that of the victim, plays into the progress of a case. As she describes the results of that study, Lyon continued, “Prosecutors treat cases differently based on who is dead.”

Balancing this commentary, the stories of Hobley and Tarver are intertwined, pieces of each juxtaposed against the other. Lyon and Lobes also examine the links between criminals and minorities made in the media, a portrayal that often results in a presumption of guilt. The media also covers minority victims of violent crimes quite differently from white victims.

“A dead white person is a headline, a dead black person is a 3rd or 4th page story, if that,” said criminal defense attorney William Moffitt.

In the panel discussion that followed the screening, participant and Boston Globe op-ed columnist Derrick Jackson continued on this theme of the media’s impact upon the criminal justice system, agreeing that the media unfairly portrays minorities. He specifically cited a 1994 study of Chicago television news, which found that African-Americans accused of crime were twice as likely as whites to be filmed or photographed with police. “The media as an entity is still playing with unconscious bias,” Jackson said.

The film closes on a less-than-hopeful note, set against graphic images of Tarver’s executed body.

“I no longer ask, do these people who committed these crimes deserve the death penalty,” says Stevenson. “I ask, ‘Does society deserve to kill people, when they’re so unwilling to engage in an honest conversation about the impact of race?'”

The audience included a delegation of high school students from Camden Academy, as well as groups from other local colleges. During the panel session, Rachel Lyon succinctly reiterated the film’s thesis. “Race is the single most important factor in who lives and who dies at the hands of the state,” she said. “It’s the open secret that we keep not talking about.”

Fellow panelist Nancy Gurley, federal judge concurred, in very sparing terms, and posed a difficult question to the audience. “The innocence question is the easier one,” she said. “It’s harder to grapple with the fairness one”

Ogletree also narrated the film, which will be released nationally March 27th. The Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, in collaboration with Massachusetts against the Death Penalty, sponsored the event.

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