Friday, December 05, 2008

South Carolina: Lawyer says: Race played no role in murder

The Nov. 18 article, "Execution date set in racial killing," perpetuates a myth that began before Joseph Gardner was ever tried for the murder of Melissa McLaughlin, and has compromised the search for truth ever since. The senseless and undeniably tragic homicide of Ms. McLaughlin was not a "racial killing" when it occurred. It was a terrible and unnecessary end to an evening of impulsive and deplorable conduct by a number of people, including Mr. Gardner, but it had nothing to do with race.

The case started to become a "racial killing" when a co-defendant signed a highly embellished statement to that effect, written by his interrogators in Michigan, after many hours of pressure to do so. It progressed toward a "racial killing" when prosecutors sought to bolster their chance for a conviction and death sentence by feeding reporters characterizations of the co-defendant's statement designed to exploit racial divisions in the community. And it fully matured into a "racial killing" when reporters embraced what they had been fed and turned it into a sensation through literally hundreds of stories in newspapers and on television.

Those same characterizations reappeared in the Nov. 18 article, which referenced "what prosecutors described as (Mr. Gardner’s) revenge for centuries of oppression against blacks," and prosecutors' citation of "a letter found by investigators that contained racial slurs and passages aimed at justifying revenge against whites."

But when the case went to trial — that is, when the prosecution was required to present real proof of its claims — evidence of a "racial killing" was conspicuously absent. Perhaps prosecutors refrained because they knew the claims were untrue. Or perhaps they had already gotten what they needed through the media coverage, with which 10 of the 12 jurors who decided Mr. Gardner's fate admitted their familiarity. Whatever the explanation, the indisputable fact is that the prosecution did not prove — indeed, did not even attempt to prove — that the homicide was a "racial killing."

Had the claims of a "racial killing" ended there, this newspaper might never have had occasion to announce the setting of Friday as Mr. Gardner's execution date. Unfortunately, we will never know. In a move so devoid of strategic benefit that even the notoriously conservative U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit called it "constitutionally deficient," Mr. Gardner's own trial lawyer provided the jury with the statement written by the Michigan interrogators and signed by the co-defendant. As a result, the prosecution got the benefit of its pre-trial media theme without ever even having to prove it, and the jury got to pass judgment on the "racial killing" they had read about and seen on TV.

In the years that followed, the hollowness of the "racial killing" story was revealed. The co-defendant whose signature had started it all testified under oath and without contradiction that the claims of racial hatred in the statement he signed were not true, and that he would have said so at Mr. Gardner's trial if anyone had bothered to ask. Other aspects upon which the prosecution had relied to make the case appear more aggravated than it was were deconstructed and disproved. And the mishandling of Mr. Gardner's defense was revealed so starkly that even the federal court of appeals acknowledged it. By the time these facts came to light, however, the producers and consumers of the "racial killing" story had long since stopped paying attention.

Now that Mr. Gardner’s pending execution has revived the newsworthiness of his case, it is disappointing — but hardly surprising — to see the "racial killing" headline dusted off and printed once again. In some ways, perhaps it no longer matters; headline or no headline, Mr. Gardner's legal challenges to that part of the case are finished. But in other, more enduring ways it matters a great deal, because it implies that the story propagated through sound bites and repetition more than a decade ago was valid then and remains valid today.

As anyone willing to examine the more than 10,000 pages of testimony and documents would surely discover, it wasn't, and it doesn't. The purveyors of the story may not have known any better when they originally inflamed the community's fears and biases, and in the process diminished Mr. Gardner's chance at a fair trial and sentence. But they should know better now. This time around, the appeal to fear and bias diminishes the rest of us.

Some will say that Mr. Gardner will get what he deserves Friday. That is debatable. What is not debatable is that the “racial killing” myth that has for so long distorted perceptions of his case by capitalizing on racial division deserves, at long last, to be put to rest.

Mr. Weyble, who directs death penalty litigation at the Cornell Law School Death Penalty Project, is Mr. Gardner's appellate attorney.

(source: Opinion, Keir Weyble; The State)

State killing in the name of SC's citizens scheduled for today - please call or FAX SC Governor's office today

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