Hugh Kite, a white man, general store owner and mainstay of his rural Alabama community, was murdered during the course of a robbery on September 15, 1984. Kite's daughter describes the scene. "The night my father was killed, we pulled up to the store. And it was a crime scene. There were police cars everywhere. It was horrible." Several weeks later, Robert Tarver, a black ex-convict on parole, was charged with the killing. The prosecutor asked for the death penalty. Less than four months after Hugh Kite was murdered, Robert Tarver was sentenced to die.
Those connected to Hugh Kite and Robert Tarver relate the story of the trial and its aftermath from their unique -- and contradictory -- perspectives. Coty Kite Holmes, the victim's daughter, states, "Robert Tarver had a very fair trial... It wasn't about race." Tarver's aunt, Ethel Ponder, counters, "No way did Robert have a fair trial... You're supposed to get justice, not take it away." And reporter Sam Harper reflects, "I began to get a sense that maybe this was a case that had been decided before it went to court."
The prosecutor at Tarver's trial rejected all but one of the African Americans qualified for jury service. Eleven white Alabamans and one African-American composed Tarver's "jury of his peers." And as prosecutors have long known, a trial can turn on who is sitting in the jury box. Recent research indicates the extent to which the make-up of the jury affects sentencing: when five or more white males sit on a capital trial jury, there is a 70% chance of a death penalty outcome. If there are four or fewer white males, the chance of a death sentence is only 30%.
Whether in the rural South or the inner city North, virtually all-white juries are commonplace . . . and potentially lethal to black defendants. In Chicago in 1987, Madison Hobley, a young medical technician married to his high school sweetheart, suffered a nightmarish end to his everyday dreams. "I had a regular Nine-to-Five life, you know, work, family and friends. The thing I remember most was my son, he was smart for a little kid." When seven people, including Hobley's wife and son, died in an apartment house blaze, Hobley was accused of setting the fire.
Madison Hobley's story illustrates the underbelly of race and capital punishment in Illinois -- police brutality, falsified evidence and an incompetent trial defense counsel. Hobley relates the story of his arrest and torture by Chicago police: "They said they didn't care who did it. As far as they were concerned, I was a nigger and I did it and they had me. One officer stood behind me and held me while the other officer hit me in the stomach. And then one of them got a plastic typewriter cover and put it over my head." The officers claimed that Hobley had signed a written confession but that spilled coffee had destroyed the document. The jury, another panel of eleven whites and one black, convicted Madison Hobley and sentenced him to die.
A 1987 local news broadcast shows a dazed and frightened Hobley being marched into Police Headquarters, protesting to the cameras, "It was not me. They have the wrong man." He is fighting the burden of guilt laid on him, not only by the police, but also by the media. Court TV expert Raymond Brown describes research that examines the racialized aspect of that fear: "In news coverage, features and in entertainment, there is a tendency to show whites as victims of blacks in a manner that is out of all proportion to reality." And some of those viewers who absorb the media's propagation of fear and the image of white people as vulnerable to crime will become members of juries.
In January 2003, the Chicago evening news contained sensational news of a different nature. Based on the evidence supporting their innocence, Governor George Ryan had exonerated Madison Hobley and three other condemned men. This time the news cameras showed Madison Hobley walking out of prison and into the arms of his family. Ryan himself becomes convinced of the inequities and fallibilities of capital punishment in Illinois: "How do you let innocent people march to death row without someone saying 'Stop the show.'"
In an unprecedented move, the Governor commuted the death sentences of every inmate on the state's Death Row. Criminal defense attorney William Moffitt comments on the Illinois revelations: "The Illinois system does not stand out as a broken system by itself. There's a broken system in Texas, there's a broken system in California, there's a broken system in Virginia, and there's a broken system in Florida. And every time the system examines itself, it turns out that it's broken."
While Ryan's momentous decision overturned the sentence of Madison Hobley, Bryan Stevenson's final appeals on behalf of Robert Tarver were denied because the racial bias in the jury selection had not been raised by his defense in the original trial. We do not know whether Robert Tarver killed Hugh Kite. Journalist Sam Harper describes his uncertainty until the very end: "As I walked with the other journalists, there was a guard ahead, leading us in... I just felt an overwhelming sense of evil, despair." But as we hear of Tarver's final moments in the execution chamber, as he scans the gathered witnesses, looking for a face he recognizes, we wonder whether a white man convicted of killing a black man would have ended up strapped to the electric chair, awaiting his death.
The conclusion of Race to Execution leaves us with the exoneration of one man and the execution of another. In both cases, race is a factor impossible to avoid. "I no longer ask, do these people who committed these crimes deserve the death penalty," states Stevenson. "I ask, does society deserve to kill people, when they're so unwilling to engage in an honest conversation about the impact of race." Despite some signs of progress, William Moffitt is not hopeful that reforms will be adequate, "I think the notion of race is so powerful in our society, and it lies at such a deep-seated level, that we don't even notice it. And until you can wipe that slate clean, race is going to play an indelible role in who lives and who dies."