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Film Examines Race and Law

By Jessica M. Luna, Contributing Writer

Students gathered last night at Harvard Law School’s Austin Hall for an advance screening of the upcoming PBS documentary “Race to Execution.”

The film focuses on two stories of African-Americans on death row. Madison Hobley was sentenced to death for an arson case that took the lives of seven people. Robert Tarver was convicted for the murder of a white businessman.

According to the film’s producers, the film is meant to highlight a bias in the American legal system with respect to prosecuting and executing minorities convicted of serious crimes.

“We can’t tell you to sit back and enjoy the film, but we can tell you to sit back and think,” said co-producer Jim Lopes ’74 before the film.

Hobley was exonerated in 2002 after evidence proved that he was a victim of police brutality and forced into a confession.

Tarver was executed based on the testimony of a single witness.

Both cases were tried by a jury of eleven white men and one black man. According to the film, minorities are unfairly excluded from juries because they are perceived to be opposed to the death penalty.

The film also claims that race plays a prominent role in convictions. In Texas, the killer of a white victim is 30 times more likely to be executed than the killer of a black victim, the documentary cited.

In a panel discussion following the film, panelists stressed the importance of fairness in selecting a jury and having competent court-appointed lawyers for defendants.

Rachel Lyon, the film’s director, said she believed Tarver was “deeply involved in the death,” but wanted to show that the legal system was looking to convict him.

“It was important to me to show that they didn’t prove it,” said Lyon.

“Race is the single most important factor in who lives and who dies at the hands of the state,” she said after the event. “It’s the open secret that we keep not talking about.”

Other participants agreed with the film’s focus on the need to improve the legal system.

“It’s not just these two cases,” said Climenko Professor of Law Charles J. Ogletree, Jr. “They are a metaphor for a flawed system.”

Ogletree is also the director of the law school’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice and the narrator of the film.

Derrick Z. Jackson, a panelist and op-ed columnist for the Boston Globe, said he agreed with the film’s contention that the media unfairly portrays minorities.

Jackson cited a 1994 study of Chicago TV stations, which found that African-Americans accused of crime were two times as likely as whites to be photographed in the presence of police, to back up his statements.

“The media as an entity is still playing with unconscious bias,” he said.

“Race to Execution” will be released to national audiences on PBS’ Independent Lens on March 27.

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