The Cold Hard Truth

The Cold Hard Truth

By J.L. Chestnut, Jr.

Vol. 11, No. 5, 1989, pp. 24, 23

I spoke recently in Pittsburgh at an annual NAACP banquet. Ordinarily, NAACP types are leery of me because they often naively believe every societal problem in the world can be settled in the courts. That is one of the reasons many of them don’t march or walk picket lines.

For three decades I have preached about the severe limitations on the law as a tool for positive social change. So, why was I asked to come and speak at a NAACP banquet in Pittsburgh? Good question.

The very conservative Republican majority on the U.S. Supreme Court recently acknowledged the racism surrounding and undermining the death penalty in America but sanctioned it anyway. I didn’t have to say, “I told you so.” The court said it for me and in a most eloquent manner.

In addition, the so-called pro-lifers recently won a stunning victory against abortions in the Pennsylvania legislature. The conservative Republican Attorney General of the United States, Richard Thornburg, was U.S. Attorney in Pittsburgh before he became governor and is a major pro-lifer.

The general is also a loud advocate of the federal death penalty. Many black Pennsylvanians are beginning to question his sincerity as he preaches the pro-life gospel on one hand and the death penalty on the other.

The Pittsburgh NAACP groups raised the same questions when Thornburg nominated Bill Lucas to head the civil rights division at Justice. Several black Pennsylvania politicians, close to Thornburg, were in Detroit trying to drum up support for Lucas. They failed.

These Pennsylvania politicians were singularly ineffective. First, they were unaware Thornburg had taken a stand on the federal death penalty. Second, they were not knowledgeable about the civil rights connection with capital punishment and knew next to nothing about the death penalty generally.

A few days ago in Birmingham I discussed capital punishment in Alabama before an audience of blacks and whites. Only the blacks were uncomfortable. Shades of Detroit!

I recited the following facts in Birmingham.

There are 106 people under sentence of death in Alabama. Fifty-one percent of Alabama death row inmates are black, though we comprise only a fifth of the-population. Eighty percent of death row sentences were imposed in cases with white victims. Alabama has never executed a white person for a crime against a black; regardless of how outrageous or brutal the crime. Seventeen death row prisoners received the death sentence from a circuit judge who overruled a jury recommendation of life without parole.

Alabama has five women on death row, the largest number in the nation per capita. Two juveniles are under sentence of death. At present there are approximately 126 people charged with capital murder awaiting trial or sentencing in Alabama. Ten people have been sentenced to death in the last six months.

Since Alabama resumed executions, six people have

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been put to death at Holman Prison. The pace of executions has escalated in recent months; there have been three executions since May of 1989. Arthur Julius is currently scheduled for execution on November 17, a few days away.

If the foregoing facts make you nervous, don’t blame me. Blame the truth.

I am often amused by certain blacks with certain jobs–in Alabama, Pennsylvania and elsewhere–who will blame me for reciting or publishing the foregoing facts but will voice no opinion on the process that produced those facts. My critics are often classic frauds.

The western Pennsylvania NAACP membership was hardly unanimous in approving my visit or anticipated speech; otherwise the visit wouldn’t have been worth the trip.


J. L. Chestnut is an Alabama trial lawyer and writer.