Capital punishment has always been a controversial issue. In 1791, before the French Revolution. Maximillian Robespierre delivered a speech arguing against the death penalty. A few years later he led the Reign of Terror, and organized mass executions, which exemplifies the way capital punishment is often politicized and used for specific agendas, rather than as a form of rational punishment. Today, in the U.S., recent technological advancements, including DNA testing, has exonerated inmates on death row. There is a racial and socioeconomic element to the debate, because more inmates on Death Row are poor minorities. Some highly publicized cases featured defendants with mental handicaps, so Florida passes a law mandating that a defendant must have an IQ above 70 to receive the death penalty. It was later ruled unconstitutional. The documentary Black Death in Dixie investigates capital murder cases in Alabama, where black man sentenced to death were the victims of prosecution misconduct and racial bias. The documentary examines the Jim Crow ear south, describing a “reign of terror” that has led to a corrupt and racist Alabama judicial system that is sentencing men to death essentially for being black and poor, often despite evidence that exonerates them.
The cases featured in the documentary are scandalous. Walter McMillian was accused of killing a white woman, and spent six years on Death Row. Witnesses later admitted they had committed perjury, and McMillian was cleared of all charges. He also had a rock solid alibi at the time of the murder, he was a church fish fry, and everyone vouched for him. However, the prosecutor ignored the evidence and pursued the case for questionable motives. Other cases, like Bo Cochran, show that the judicial system in Alabama has some serious problems. The prosecutor illegally removed black jurors and to have some kind of racial vendetta. It took four trials for Cochran to get a fair jury, and he was acquitted. Another case, involving Robert Tarvel also featured jury tampering and prosecutional misconduct. Furthermore, Alabama is the only state to offer no legal aid to inmates after they are convicted of a capital offense, making it difficult to take advantage of expensive DNA testing that could prove their innocence. The narration shows how the men’s lives were often ruined, and leading civil rights leaders offer thought provoking insights into why the death penalty is so egregious in a country like the U.S. that has such a horrible history of racism and slavery.
The documentary has a clear anti-death penalty agenda and bias. However, the strength of their evidence and argument builds a unique case against the death penalty. In states like Alabama, blacks seem to be unfairly targeted in murder investigations. Moreover, once charged, they seem to suffer at the hands of over-zealous and possibly racist police, prosecutors and judges. Many of the statistics provided were also shocking. In the deep south the chance of a black defendant receiving the death penalty rose 3.5 times if the victim was white (“Black Death in Dixie”). Apparently, black on black crime is not prosecuted the same way as black on white crime. One of the films main themes is that systematic racial and socioeconomic inequalities, and an institutionalized form of racism in the south is a result of historical patterns of injustice that have existed since Jim Crow. Despite civil rights laws, and societal disapproval of overt racism, residual racism still exists in the judicial systems in southern states like Alabama. The documentary is part of “The What in the World” series of documentaries that offer “compelling and profoundly moving stories of people whose lives have been framed by poverty and injustice” (“KMF Productions). It also well produced, featuring an interview with former first lady Roselynn Carter and the narration of a recognizable Irish actor, emphasizing the fact that most industrialized countries banned capital punishments years ago. Mrs. Carter sums up the theme of the documentary, “stating that “racism just pervades the criminal justice system in our country. The death penalty does not depend on the crime: it depends on the race, where they live and whether they have any money or not” (“Black Death in Dixie”). The U.S. continues to allow capital punishment, despite recent problems obtaining and administrating drugs and carrying out the death penalty in a “humane” way.
Despite a viewers personal philosophy about the ethics of capital punishment, the film offers one more reason to doubt the fairness and efficacy of the death punishment. Some of the defendants are simply innocent of the crime, and may be the victim of racial profiling and plain old fashioned racism. Blackstone’s famous formulation also seems to apply here. If "it is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer", then it is even worse to put innocent people to death for crimes they did not commit, simply because of their skin color. It is not democratic, and embarrasses the U.S., which attempts to proselytize the virtues of the rule of law and other democratic ideals around the world.
Black Death in Dixie. KMF Productions, 2011. DVD.
"KMF Productions." :. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Apr. 2015. <http://www.kmfproductions.net/>.