When Ronald Chris Foster was 17, he used his bike as a getaway vehicle in a fatal convenience store robbery in Lowndes County, Mississippi.
The teen had no prior criminal history and no weapon when rode his bike to the store that day, but the clerk was shot with a gun that was kept at the store.
Foster claims that the clerk pulled out a gun and the two scuffled before the gun went off, killing the clerk.
In 1991, Foster was convicted of the clerk’s murder and sentenced to death.
Foster, now 30, sits on death row until the constitutional questions raised by his age and mental ability are addressed by the U.S. and Mississippi Supreme Courts.
Foster had been scheduled to be executed on Jan. 8, but Gov. Ronnie Musgrove issued a temporary reprieve on Jan. 7.
In Jasper, Texas, after being convicted of capital murder, Shawn Allen Berry, 24, the last of three men to stand trial for the 1998 death of James Byrd Jr., was sentenced to life in prison.
Byrd was beaten, chained by the ankles and dragged behind Berry’s pickup truck along a backwoods road where he was decapitated.
Berry, the alleged driver, insisted he was too afraid of his two racist buddies to help Byrd.
Under Texas law, he will be eligible for parole in 2039.
As the country examines its sentiments over the effectiveness and the humanity of the death penalty, 2003 promises to be a crucial year for capital punishment politics.
Three years after calling a moratorium on executions, former Illinois Governor George Ryan pardoned four death-row inmates and commuted 167 death-penalty cases to life imprisonment or less.
Ryan, in his final hours in office, said he felt a moral obligation to act because the system is “haunted by the demon of error.”
Back in 1972, the U.S. Supreme court ruled that capital punishment as then practiced was unconstitutional, because it was applied disproportionately to certain classes of defendants – particularly those who were black and poor.
Today, the death penalty is still plagued with fallibility.
When Ryan came into office in 1999, he supported the death penalty, until he found that Illinois’ record on capital punishment was “shameful.”
Time magazine reports that the state’s twelve executions since the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1977 had been surpassed by thirteen exonerations.
By November 1999, half of Illinois’ almost 300 capital punishment cases were reversed.
Based on statistics collected by the Death Penalty Information Center, race is still a defining factor in the fate of the accused.
More than 80 percent of completed capital cases involve a white victim, even though nationally 50 percent of murder victims are white.
And, between 1995 and 2000, 75 percent of the federal cases in which juries recommended the death penalty involved black or Latino defendants.
Most disturbing is that this maximum penalty is being clumsily applied. According the The Nation, between 1973 and 1995 seven out of ten death-penalty cases were thrown out on appeal due to flaws in the trial.
Between 1973 and 2001, eighty-nine death-row inmates were found to be innocent and subsequently were exonerated, escaping death by hours in some cases.
The emptying of Illinois death row has led to intense political debates on the efficacy and fairness of the death penalty.
But the evidence is hauntingly clear.
For every eight people executed since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, one person was exonerated from the crime that landed him on death row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Hopefully, Gov. Ryan’s bold step will force the justice system to rethink its eye for an eye mentality.
Only by reinstating capital punishment as unconstitutional can America live up to its oft-lauded principles of fairness, equality and morality under the law.
The Temple News editorial board members are:
Mike Gainer, Editor in Chief
Jeremy Smith, Managing Editor
Brian White, News Editor
Kia Gregory, Opinion Editor