Race discrimination infects America’s capital punishment system. According to a landmark study regarding race and the death penalty, a black defendant who kills a white victim is up to 30 times more likely to be sentenced to death than a white defendant who kills a black victim. RACE TO EXECUTION, a film by Rachel Lyon, traces the fates of two death row inmates, Robert Tarver in Russell County, Alabama and Madison Hobley in Chicago, Illinois. Their compelling personal stories are enlarged and enriched by attorneys who fought for these men’s lives, and by prosecutors, criminal justice scholars and experts in the fields of law and the media.
RACE TO EXECUTION reveals how, beyond DNA and the issue of innocence, the shameful open secret of America's capital punishment system is a matter of race. Once a victim’s body is discovered, his or her race—and the race of the accused—deeply influence the legal process: how a crime scene is investigated and the deployment of police resources, the interrogation and arrest of major suspects, how the media portrays the crime and ultimately, the jury selection and sentencing.
Hugh Kite, a white man, general store owner and mainstay of his rural Alabama community, was murdered during the course of a robbery on September 15, 1984. Less than four months after Kite was murdered, Robert Tarver, a black man, was sentenced to die. The prosecutor at Tarver’s trial rejected all but one of the African Americans qualified for jury service. Eleven white Alabamans and one African American composed Tarver’s “jury of his peers.” And as prosecutors have long known, a trial can turn on who is sitting in the jury box. Recent research indicates the extent to which the make-up of the jury affects sentencing: when five or more white males sit on a capital trial jury, there is a 70 percent chance of a death penalty outcome. If there are four or fewer white males, the chance of a death sentence is only 30 percent.
Whether in the rural South or the inner city North, virtually all-white juries are commonplace—and potentially lethal to black defendants. In 1987, in Chicago, Madison Hobley, a young black medical technician married to his high school sweetheart, lost his wife and son in an apartment house blaze. Hobley was accused of setting the fire. Police officers claimed that Hobley had signed a written confession but that spilled coffee had destroyed the document. A panel consisting of 11 white jurors and one African American juror convicted Madison Hobley and sentenced him to die.
With key 2005 Supreme Court decisions overturning death sentences in Texas and California due to racial discrimination in jury selection, RACE TO EXECUTION offers a timely analysis. The film examines the subtle yet persistent ways in which American culture consistently overlooks matters of race in criminal justice. Neither advocating nor repudiating capital punishment, the film catalyzes dialogues about the inherent imbalances that lead to inaccuracy and unfairness in the application of the “ultimate punishment.”
The film concludes with the exoneration of one man and the execution of another. In both cases, race is a factor impossible to avoid. Yet there are signs that the death penalty is being used less often in the United States and scrutinized differently than it was even five years ago. The Supreme Court heard five death penalty cases in 2005 alone. Is this progress, or are recent reforms still inadequate? The varied voices heard in RACE TO EXECUTION contribute to a thoughtful examination of the factors that influence who lives and who dies at the hands of the state.
In January 2007, RACE TO EXECUTION Director/Co-Producer
Rachel Lyon reported on Madison Hobley as well as the examination of the death penalty in several states:
Madison Hobley and his attorney, Andrea Lyon, are still in the midst of their civil suit against the Chicago Police Department for the abuse he suffered while in police custody. Hobley and his fiancée, Lisa, recently had their second child, Marco Alexander.
The Chicago Police Department fell under increased scrutiny last May when the United Nations Committee Against Torture reported on the “limited investigation and lack of prosecution in respect of the allegations of torture perpetrated in Areas 2 and 3 of the Chicago Police Department.” The committee asked the U.S. to “promptly, thoroughly and impartially investigate all allegations of acts of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment by law enforcement personnel and bring perpetrators to justice.”
In recent months, there has been a dramatic increase in several states towards halting or reexamining the death penalty:
December 15, 2006: The lethal injection system in California was ruled by a federal judge to violate the constitutional prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.
December 15, 2006: Governor Jeb Bush halted all executions in the state because of a botched execution which occurred the same week. Bush also created a commission to look into the humanity and constitutionality of lethal injections.
December 19, 2006: The state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, ordered a halt to executions in the state because procedures for putting prisoners to death were never submitted for the public review required by law.
January 2, 2007: A 13-member commission held five days of hearings with testimony from a wide array of witnesses concerning key death penalty issues and reported to the state legislature and the governor. It was their conclusion that “there is no compelling evidence that the New Jersey death penalty rationally serves a legitimate penological intent."
January 17, 2007: An African American man was exonerated by DNA testing after spending nearly half his life in jail or on parole. He was the 12th person in the past 15 years in Dallas County whose conviction was overturned because of genetic evidence. "Nowhere else in the nation have so many individual wrongful convictions been proven in one county in such a short span," said attorney Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project, who was also Waller’s attorney.
February 2007: In Washington, D.C. the federal death penalty is being sought for accused M Street Crew member Larry Gooch. This trial is the third capital murder case in 30 years for the District of Colombia, which does not permit the death penalty under D.C. law.
Learn more about death penalty cases where race was an issue >>
Read the Filmmaker Q&A >>