A University of Michigan Law School report released today points out that the United States exonerated more people in 2013 than in any other year. News outlets have been debating the report’s significance. Does it demonstrate that the number of innocent people in prison is declining, or merely that the toll of mass incarceration is higher than ever? While these are important questions that will no doubt be taken up in the coming weeks, I’m particularly curious about the handful of cases before 1950 cited by the report, as well as the related issue of posthumous pardons (particularly for African American men).
Three of the twelve posthumous exonerations that the report lists took place in Alabama, where in November the state Board of Pardons and Paroles voted to pardon Haywood Patterson, Charles Weems, and Andy Wright, the three remaining “Scottsboro Boys” who hadn’t already been pardoned or had their convictions dropped. If you’re not familiar with the case, the boys had been part of a group of nine black teenagers accused of raping two white women in Alabama in 1931. The pardon is being hailed as a sort of final step for Alabama’s Civil Rights trajectory. As the New York Times put it, the pardon “clos[es] one of the most notorious chapters of the South’s racial history.”
Most recently, the case of George Stinney, a fourteen-year-old African American boy who was put to death in 1944 for the rape and murder of two white girls, has been reopened in South Carolina. Stinney, who holds the unfortunate title of being the youngest person executed in the twentieth century, was convicted in a brief trial by an all-white jury. The gruesome details of Stinney’s case include the fact that his Bible was used as a sort of booster seat so that he could fit into the electric chair and that his feet could not reach the floor of the execution chamber. The fate of Stinney’s case awaits a court ruling on whether autopsies in South Carolina should be considered public information or medical records. Even so, the case has received widespread media attention, with local and national audiences urging the state to “rectify the wrong done so long ago…when miscarriages of justice against people like [Stinney] were so commonplace.”
Stephen Greenspan, Clinical Professor of Psychology at the University of Colorado, suggests that the increasing number of posthumous pardons reflects “a growing understanding from recent cases that innocent people are frequently convicted, and sometimes executed, often as a result of unfair and biased trial processes or prosecutorial and police misconduct.”
There’s something disquieting, though, about the rhetoric surrounding cases like Stinney’s and those of the Scottsboro Boys. Pronouncing “case closed” on the racism of the early- and mid-twentieth century justice system provides a way to distance ourselves from the past, even when (as the Michigan report shows) courts today routinely put black people in prison with little evidence or provocation. While I don’t deny that a formal pardon might provide some measure of peace for the families of the exonerated, it’s a relatively low-stakes measure when compared to pardoning people who are still alive. As Clive Stafford Smith asks, “would our ‘modern courts’ have let Stinney off just because he did not commit the crime? The simple, sorry answer is, no.” Judicially sponsored racism is not over. Institutionalized practices that lead to the wrongful imprisonment of a disproportionately of African American male population are undeniably still with us.
I’d be curious to look at more complete data regarding posthumous pardons in the United States. Specifically, I wonder what motivates state (and national) officials to issue them, as well as how the demographics compare to pardons of those who are still living.
For further reading:
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press, New York, 2010.
Bui, Yen, and Jeanette L. Jordan. “Amnesty and Pardon.” In The Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice. Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2014. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/9781118517383.wbeccj056/abstract.
Greenspan, Stephen. “Posthumous Pardons Granted in American History” (March 2011). http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/documents/PosthumousPardons.pdf.