Race to Execution

March 27, 2007


About the Documentary

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 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.

The Filmmakers

Rachel Lyon
Rachel Lyon is an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker and a professor at Queens College in New York City. She has directed several acclaimed documentaries, including Mr. Dreyfuss Goes to Washington for the History Channel, Shadow Over Tibet for PBS and the Emmy Award winner, Men Who Molest, for PBS’s Frontline. Lyon has created over 60 documentaries for PBS, NBC, CNN, National Geographic and the History Channel, among others.

Jim Lopes
Jim Lopes is an entertainment and media attorney. A Harvard graduate, he has experience working in film, television and music. He was formerly an executive with a subsidiary of MCA Universal, where he first worked with Rachel Lyon. Lopes later served as general counsel for CBS/Fox Video, licensing hundreds of films. More recently, he has served as a vice president and associate general counsel for Reader’s Digest and its music, publishing and television divisions. Lopes is currently producing a documentary on the Cape Verdean whaling families of New England.

Charles J. Ogletree, Jr.
Charles Ogletree is the Jesse Climenko Professor of Law Chair at Harvard Law School and the founder and executive director of Harvard’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice. He has examined complex issues of the law and human rights not only in the classroom, but also on the Internet, in the pages of prestigious law journals and in the world of the public defender—in the courtroom and in public television forums. His book, From Lynch Mobs to the Killing State: Race and the Death Penalty in America, was used in research for the film.

Jim Morrissette
Jim Morrissette has more than 25 years of experience as a cinematographer and videographer. He served as a primary cinematographer for the Kartemquin Films series The New Americans as well as on groundbreaking independent films such as Hoop Dreams and the Frontline documentary The Farmer’s Wife. Morrissette lensed Shadow Over Tibet for Lioness and numerous other productions for PBS.

Christine Intagliata
Christine Intagliata’s writing credits include two History Channel specials, Duel: Hamilton and Burr and Mr. Dreyfuss Goes to Washington, and the independent documentary First Basket. She has written programs for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and for Discovery Communications’ Global Education Partnership. Intagliata was also part of the Frontline team that produced the Emmy Award-winning Retreat from Beirut about U.S. military involvement in Lebanon.

Leo Sidran
Leo Sidran has produced music for several films, including the Academy Award-winning song “Al otro lado del Río” for the film The Motorcycle Diaries. He also composed and produced the score for the documentary film With All Deliberate Speed and recently has been developing new media musical content for MTV and Motorola.

Ted Griffis
Ted Griffis’s television programming credits include pieces for CNN, the History Channel and the documentary The Day They Died. Additionally, through his company Griffis Arts, he has produced programs for the Learning Channel. He currently works as a staff editor for Cathode Ray Club in New York.

Gerry Kim
Gerry Kim has served as video producer/editor for the New England Sustainable Farming Project at Tufts University and on several documentary programs and non-fiction series, including Antiques Roadshow and Frontline.


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