Claudine Clark

Stand up!

Do you know the story of the little black boy, living in poverty, turning to crime for lack of parental guidance and becoming the target of a conservative state government in the American South, with a botched capital punishment trial ending in an execution with no real proof of guilt? Yes, I’m sure dozens of names come to your mind. I can name a few: 

  • George Stinney Jr. (age 14) – executed in 1944 for the murder of two white girls. His conviction was overturned in 2014.
  • Willie McGee (37) – executed in 1951 for raping a white woman. His conviction was challenged by civil rights activists.
  • Emmett Till (14) – lynched in 1955 for being accused of whistling at a white woman. His killers were acquitted.
  • John Arthur “Bo” Morrison (age 21) – executed in 1998 for the murder of a white woman. Evidence was later uncovered that suggested investigators mishandled the case and witnesses were influenced
  • Sammie Woods Jr. (20) – executed in 2004 for the murder of a white policewoman. Evidence was later discovered that suggested his trial was not fair.
  • Cameron Todd Willingham (age 36) – executed in 2004 for the murder of his three children in an arson attack. Evidence was later discovered that suggested his conviction was based on faulty forensic science.
  • Troy Davis (42) – executed in 2011 for the 1989 murder of a white police officer. Evidence was later discovered that raised doubts about his guilt.

And unfortunately this list is still long, it would already be too long if it included only one name. How can a society, which calls itself civilized, massacre its people, including innocent, hiding behind “justice”, there is no justice in taking the life of a human being and even more so when there is the slightest suspicion of innocence. 

The unjust execution of Black people in the United States is often the result of a biased, racist and unfair criminal justice system. There are several reasons why this happens:

  • Institutional racism: institutional racism is deeply embedded in the U.S. justice system, which means that Black people are often treated unfairly and discriminatorily by judicial authorities.
  • Racial profiling: black people are often racially profiled, which means they are more likely to be arrested, prosecuted, and convicted of crimes than white people.
  • Economic Discrimination: Black people are often economically disadvantaged, which means they have fewer resources to defend themselves against criminal charges and to hire competent lawyers.
  • Miscarriages of Justice: Unfortunately, the U.S. criminal justice system is far from perfect and miscarriages of justice can occur, especially in cases where evidence is weak or witnesses are unreliable.
  • Death Penalty: the death penalty is often disproportionately applied to Black people, meaning they are more likely to be executed for crimes they did not commit.

All of these reasons, and more, contribute to racial discrimination and injustice in the American criminal justice system. The history of racism in the southern states of the United States dates back to the days of slavery, when white slave owners forced millions of Africans to work without pay on cotton and tobacco plantations. After slavery was abolished, Jim Crow laws were put in place to maintain racial segregation and discrimination against blacks in schools, public places and jobs. Racist violence, such as lynchings, was also common in southern states, where whites opposed any social change that threatened their power and privileged status. The civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s led to the passage of federal laws to combat racial discrimination, but racism persists today in many parts of the southern United States.

The death penalty has long been a topic of debate in the United States, but when one considers the history of the death penalty in the southern states, it becomes clear that racism is at the heart of the practice. Studies have shown that black people are far more likely to be sentenced to death than white people for similar crimes, and that prosecutors are more likely to seek the death penalty for crimes involving white victims. This is a clear indication of the racial discrimination that persists in the criminal justice system even today. Famous cases of black people wrongfully executed in southern states, such as George Stinney Jr. in South Carolina, show how costly and tragic miscarriages of justice can be for innocent people. The death penalty should be abolished not only because of its inhumanity, but also because of the racial discrimination that underlies it in southern states and across the country.

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Now I would like to bring your attention to William Sweet’s case, a little African American boy who also grew up in poverty, without parental guidance and without support from society. He quickly learned to fend for himself on the streets, unaware of society’s rules or the consequences of his actions. Because of his social status and skin color, he was ignored by most people and never received the help he needed.

At the age of fourteen, William was placed in the infamous Dozier School in Florida, which was known for its brutality and abuse of students. Children were beaten, mistreated, and subjected to inhumane treatment and even murder. William was physically and emotionally abused for months before leaving this school. Back on the streets, William continued to struggle to survive. He met the wrong people and was drawn into crime. He never received adequate help to get out of this vicious circle and yet our society should have reached out to this child, but who cares about a poor black child, obviously not many people. .

At the age of 23, William Sweet was sentenced to death for a murder he did not commit. In June 1990 William was misidentified and arrested 30 hours after a crime, because there was a need for a culprit. Despite the lack of physical evidence linking him to the crime, Sweet was convicted and sentenced to death. William Sweet’s conviction and thus alleged guilt was based solely on testimony, as eyewitness accounts are often considered unreliable, as studies show. Indeed, a systematic reform of eyewitness identification was published in the Wisconsin Law Journal in 2006, highlighting the fundamental flaws of eyewitness testimony. In Barion Perry v. State of New Hampshire No. 10-8974, an amicus curiae brief was filed with the U.S. Supreme Court, highlighting the impropriety of eyewitness testimony as court evidence. The brief explores the flaws in the current system and proposes systematic reforms to improve the reliability of eyewitness testimony. It demonstrates that eyewitness testimony should not be the only evidence used to convict a person, and that other, more reliable evidence should be considered in court proceedings.However, in Mr.Sweet’s case, not only was the testimony of the primary witness recanted, but the next witness, a jailhouse informant, Soloman Hansbury, admitted to lying under oath in order to curry favor with the prosecutor, so the court is complicit in wrongful conviction and perjury, the motive? Racism.

Racism among state prosecutors in the United States is a persistent and well-documented problem. State prosecutors have considerable power in the U.S. justice system because they have the authority to prosecute crimes, charge people, and seek harsh sentences. Unfortunately, some state prosecutors have abused this power to disproportionately target people of color, particularly Blacks and Latinos. A study conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that, although drug use rates were similar across races, blacks were about 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites. Another study conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) found that prosecutors were more likely to pursue criminal cases against people of color than whites for similar crimes, even after controlling for factors such as criminal history and offense severity. In addition, there have been documented cases of state prosecutors withholding evidence, using coercive practices to obtain confessions, and prosecuting people for crimes they did not commit because of their race or ethnicity. These practices have led to a disproportionate rate of people of color in U.S. prisons and have contributed to a justice system that is not fair to all.

Still think we have evolved since slavery? Our justice system proves us wrong! The racism of the prosecutors is present everywhere in Florida and particularly in Jacksonville in the 80’s 90’s, one sees it in the selections of jury where the black people are literally avoided because of the color of their skin. Patrick Doherty, a defense attorney in Florida, declared in October 1990: “They don’t believe black people will follow the law, they’re throwing them off the jury because they’re black. It’s absolute racism. There is no other explanation.” Martin Luther King Jr once said “I dream that my four grandchildren will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the value of their character…”, where is that world? 

Despite all the doubts surrounding his guilt, the court did not overturn the conviction of Mr. Sweet, who has continued to claim his innocence for more than 30 years. William Sweet’s case is a shocking example of the bias and injustice in our justice system. Witnesses who testified against him have since recanted their statements, but the court inexplicably refused to consider these new statements as valid. This decision is not a surprise; courts have a long history of accepting flimsy and unreliable testimony when it supports the prosecution, while rejecting recanting testimony or any evidence that might prove their error. These decisions have tragic consequences, especially when it comes to the life of an innocent person whom the state wants to kill. Beyond illustrating the unreliability of our judicial system, this is a tragic story that illustrates how society’s neglect of black and more broadly poor children can have devastating consequences. William’s abuse at school also showed that racism and institutionalized violence were deeply embedded in the educational and judicial system of the time. It is a story that should remind us of the importance of protecting children and fighting all forms of discrimination and abuse.

Unlike George Stinney Jr, Willie McGee or Troy Davis, William Sweet is still alive, sitting on Florida’s death row, awaiting execution for a crime he did not commit. But it’s not too late to take action and fight back against a biased justice system, racism and injustice that has caused so much harm to so many people. We have the power to make a difference by standing up for our brothers and sisters, regardless of their background, religion or social class. As leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela did, we must fight for justice and equality for all in a peaceful but effective way. We must believe in life, we must act to correct this unjust situation. Anne Frank said, “It is a great wonder that I have not yet given up all my hopes because they seem absurd and unattainable. Yet I cling to them, in spite of everything, because I still believe in the innate goodness of man. “

Every individual can make a difference, no matter how small the action. Whether it’s speaking out about injustice and opening the eyes of others, signing online petitions, or donating to an organization that fights for justice, every action counts. History shows us that great changes in our society have been made through individual actions. People like Rosa Parks have had a huge impact on the fight against racism and discrimination. Let’s not forget that each of us can do our part to create a more just world. So let’s not wait for someone else to do it for us. Together we can change our society for the better. Let’s act now to save William Sweet’s life and make his story a symbol for creating a more just and equitable world for all, in the name of all the innocent people who lost their lives under the cloak of American justice and its infamous death penalty! So stand up together and stand firm, for it is by standing together that we can change the world.


Claudine Clark
French Coalition Against the Death Penalty President

About the Author
Claudine Clark is president/founder of the French Coalition Against the Death Penalty. An abolitionist, paralegal and human rights consultant, her passion stems from her origins as the granddaughter of Warsaw ghetto survivors. She defends human values of forgiveness and tolerance through numerous actions.
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