By Lisa Haddock
NJ Faith Forum Editor
The state of Georgia has pardoned Lena Baker, an African-American woman executed 60 years ago for killing a white man, a government spokeswoman stated Monday (Aug. 15).
In her one-day trial before an all-male, all-white jury, Baker claimed that she had shot the man in self-defense. Baker, who was a maid, was hired to care for E.B. Knight. Knight held Baker against her will in a grist mill and threatened her with a gun, the maid said in court. According to her testimony, Baker got control of the gun, and Knight came after her with a metal bar; that's when she fatally shot him.
The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles found that its decision to deny Baker clemency "was a grievous error, as this case called out for mercy," the spokeswoman said.
We may think we've come a long way from the overt racism that pervaded U.S. society in Lena Baker's day. But statistics kept since 1977 show that the attitudes that sent Baker to the electric chair still influence the justice system. In short, the penalty is harsher when the victim is white, especially if the perpetrator is black. African-Americans make up 50 percent of U.S. murder victims. But in 81 percent of capital cases, the victim is white. Since 1977, 12 whites have been killed for killing black victims; 202 blacks have been executed for killing white victims. A total of 979 people, 330 of them black, have been executed in the U.S. since 1977.
Why does our justice system continue to value white lives over black lives? It's a question all of us should be asking.
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