On April 17, 1997, 19-year-old Billie Allen, a Black man, was convicted on two charges: killing a security guard while committing an armed bank robbery and the use of a firearm to commit a crime. A year later, a judge imposed the federal death penalty.
A new report by Amnesty International goes into detail about Mr. Allen’s case. Upon his arrest, he was handcuffed to a table in the interrogation room for seven to eight hours without a lawyer present. Everyone involved in the case—the prosecutors, the judge and the defense team—were all White, the report points out. So was the murder victim. The crime took place in St. Louis, Missouri. Despite St. Louis being about 46 percent Black and 46 percent White, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the jury was pulled from the predominately White part of the state.
“Billie Allen’s jury consisted of 10 white jurors and two African American jurors, after the prosecution used peremptory challenges to dismiss five of the eight African Americans at jury selection,” Amnesty’s report states.
Mr. Allen wore an electro-shock stun belt the entirety of his trial. The prosecution described the young Black man as a “murderous dog.”
Twenty-five years later, Mr. Allen is still on death row, though according to both the Amnesty report and a change.org petition with more than 150,000 signatures: one, DNA testing excludes Mr. Allen as the assailant; two, a security guard came forward stating he saw Mr. Allen at a shopping mall miles away from the scene of the crime; and three, witness descriptions do not match Mr. Allen.
But Mr. Allen’s case is not an outlier when it comes to the death penalty. According to Amnesty International’s report, titled, “The power of example: Whither the Biden death penalty promise,” while Black people make up approximately 13 percent of the U.S. population, almost half of 539 defendants whose cases were authorized for a federal capital prosecution between 1988 and April 2021 were Black. Though Latinos make up almost 19 percent of the U.S. population, 18 percent of the defendants were Latino and 28 percent were White.
“Of the 16 people put to death in federal executions since 2001, seven were White, seven were Black, one was Latino and one was Native American,” the report states.
Out of the more than 1,500 executions that have been carried out since the 1970s on both the federal and state levels, 522, or about a third of those executed were Black and 128 were Latino. More than 80 percent occurred in southern states, and more than 75 percent were of people convicted of crimes involving White victims, according to Amnesty’s report.
“We are obviously not surprised by any of those statistics. That’s the reality of White supremacy in America. And it’s sort of very interesting that you have a Supreme Court that weighs in on the side of being pro-life but will not put a moratorium in place on the death penalty. So, it’s basically hypocrisy at its best and exposes sort of the racial bias that is engaged in this entire debate and this entire approach to capital punishment,” Reverend Graylan Hagler, senior minister at Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ, said to The Final Call.
He attributed the racial disparities to poverty and not being able to afford a private attorney.
“You basically get an overworked, overtaxed public defender and you end up very often being convicted, very often going to jail quite a bit and in capital cases you go on to death row,” he said.
Alexis Hoag, professor of law at Brooklyn Law School, has spent more than a decade representing individuals sentenced to death. She told The Final Call the death penalty has always been about exerting race, power and control.
“The history of the death penalty in this country has really been shaped by this presumption of Black people being dangerous and criminal,” she said. “It’s been used as a tool to control Black people. When you look at the use of capital punishment coming out of a long period of racial terrorism and lynching targeting Black men largely accused falsely of raping White women or some sort of social transgression. And as lynching decreased, we saw an increase in states’ use of capital punishment.”
Ms. Hoag described the widespread racial terrorism directed at Black people, from the Red Summer in 1919 to the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921.
“We saw widespread lethal violence targeting Black people, Black communities. And so it was around that time, then, that the legal system brought lynching into the courtroom, the courthouse doors, and gave this appearance of due process,” she said. “Let’s assign counsel. Let’s pull in a jury. Let’s have a judge. And then we can ultimately have the same result, which is the execution of a Black person.”
The majority of death penalty cases are at the state level, but Ms. Hoag said federal law can be triggered if someone already incarcerated commits murder in the facility or by people crossing state lines.
Mr. Allen is a victim of the U.S. government’s empty promises.
On June 29, 1972, in the case Furman v. Georgia, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional. In the case Gregg v. Georgia just four years later, the court claimed that Georgia’s death penalty statute was not “cruel and unusual” punishment and that it was constitutional.
It has been 50 years since Furman v. Georgia and the U.S. government has done little to abolish the federal death penalty or commute existing sentences, despite promises by current president Joe Biden. When he ran for president, he stated that if elected, he would “pass legislation to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level and incentivize states to follow the federal government’s example,” a commitment that was confirmed to the United Nations.
“However, except for a temporary moratorium on federal executions, in the 18 months since he entered the White House as President, little progress on his abolitionist pledge has been visible,” states Amnesty International’s report. “What is more, his administration’s defense of the sentences of all of those currently on federal death row—opposing relief and moving them closer to execution – is cause for concern. Time is of the essence, and it is passing.”
Amnesty International is calling on President Biden to commute all federal death sentences, including the death sentence of Mr. Allen, and to stop all federal activities that support or facilitate state executions.
“People who are victims of the criminal injustice system are very, very low in terms of the priorities of politicians,” stated Rev. Hagler.
Ms. Hoag explained that two prominent federal capital cases may be preventing the president from abolishing the death penalty: Dylann Roof, who was convicted and sentenced to death for shooting and killing nine Black people in a Charleston, S.C. church, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was convicted and sentenced to death for his participation in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.
“I think Biden doesn’t want to be the one that intervenes in the federal death penalty that would then result in those two individuals, Mr. Roof and Mr. Tsarnaev, no longer being on death row. And that’s unfortunate, because the death penalty continues to be used as a tool to target the most marginalized people in this country,” Ms. Hoag said.
Attorney Athill Muhammad from Houston, Texas, was on the team of two death penalty cases involving the same person, Tyrone M. Williams. Mr. Williams, a Black man, was initially tried in 2005 for the deaths of 19 “illegal immigrants” who lost their lives in the back of his tractor-trailer. He was the only one possibly facing the death penalty out of 13 other defendants.
“My experience has been, from a personal standpoint, the most pressure that I think an attorney can be under, because you literally have somebody’s life in your hands,” Atty. Muhammad said.
During the first trial, the judge was a Black woman and much of the court consisted of Blacks and Mexicans. The jury never returned a verdict, which resulted in a second trial, Atty. Muhammad said. The case was given to a White judge, and the jury found Mr. Williams guilty. In the end, the death penalty was not pursued, and Mr. Williams was convicted of life without parole.
“It’s difficult, especially when you begin to know the person as a human,” Atty. Muhammad expressed. “Once you know that person and then know that they’re trying to put this person to death, you’re like, well, wait a minute here.”
Death penalty alternatives
Amnesty International’s recommendations for President Biden include working with members of Congress to fully abolish the death penalty at the federal level and supporting a public information campaign about abolition, aimed at showing the facts about arbitrariness, racial bias and impact, errors and other realities of capital justice, as well as about the requirements of international human rights law.
Other recommendations included for the U.S. Congress to enact legislation to abolish the federal death penalty and for the Department of Justice to maintain the moratorium on executions until abolition of the federal death penalty is signed into law and all federal death sentences have been commuted.
Ms. Hoag recommended alternative punishments to the death penalty, such as lengthy prison sentences and a life-term in prison. But she questioned, “How do we decide what is enough punishment, if you sentenced someone to 50 years?”
“The crime doesn’t change. The nature of the murder, the aggravated murder, doesn’t change. But surely during a 50-year period of time, or some other lengthy period of time, someone perhaps has the ability to redeem themselves,” she said.