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Lawyers Criticize Death Penalty Abuse in South

By Matthew J. Mcdonald

Capital punishment in the South often victimizes Blacks and the poor, and is often the result of racism, demagoguery or incompetence, according to two attorneys who spoke at the Law School last night.

Addressing about 50 people who were gathered at the Law School's Pound Hall last night, Ruth Friedman and Clive Stafford Smith, two attorneys from the Southern Prisoners' Defense Committee in Atlanta, recounted their experiences defending prisoners charged with capital crimes.

The forum, which was sponsored by the Harvard Law School Civil Liberties Union, was originally titled "The Cutting Edge: The Death Penalty and the New Supreme Court." But the attorneys said hardly anything about the Supreme Court, explaining that they do not hold much hope for it.

"The newer the Supreme Court gets, the more hostile it gets to what we're doing," said Friedman. "It's really not [relevant]. These cases are really won and lost at the state court level."

Instead, Friedman, who graduated from Yale Law School two years ago, talked mostly about how race affects the death penalty in Georgia and Alabama.

Citing the first case she ever argued--the defense of a 35-year-old Black man accused of killing a white painter in rural Lafayette, Ala.--Friedman said that race often dominates capital cases in the South.

According to Friedman, many district attorneys try to strike Blacks from juries for racially-motivated reasons. She also said that both the judges and juries tend to take crimes against whites more seriously than crimes against Blacks.

"In a lot of cases," said Friedman, "if you have a Black defendant and a white victim, it's a capital case."

Friedman added that in order to get justice in Southern courts, defense attorneys often have "to dig up dirt" on judges and prosecuting attorneys, so they can use it as collateral against them.

She cited one case in which a "notorious racist" judge was presiding over a case she was arguing. The judge was known for using racial epithets, belonging to an all-white club, and not hiring Blacks for his staff.

However, the judge would not agree to recuse himself from the case of a Black man until defense attorneys had presented an array of embarrassing evidence of his misbehavior.

Smith focused much of his discussion on what he described as the backwardness of the Southern legal system. He indicted much of the South as racist, prejudiced and superstitious.

"Who needs statistics?" Smith asked. "All you need in Georgia is to walk into the street."

Smith cited one case in which an acquaintance of his received five years in a maximum security prison in Georgia for having oral sex with his wife.

"That's what you're dealing with in the South," said Smith. "It's just an endless, endless succession of absurd things."

"When you're dealing with [these people] in criminal cases, you have to deal with them on this level," said Smith. "You can't go to trial, because you're dealing with these juries."

Smith, who is originally from England and has been working in the South for seven years, also echoed Friedman's description of widespread racism in the judiciary.

Smith said he knew one Southern trial judge who keeps in his chambers a miniature Black man sitting in a "toy" electric chair which he periodically buzzes.

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