[Deathpenalty]death penalty news----TEXAS, VA., USA, N.C., KY.
rhalperi at mail.smu.edu
Mon Jan 2 12:57:04 CST 2006
Taylor sets sights on 284th District Court
If he makes it through the 2006 Republican primary and general election
and goes on to the 284th District Court, a Conroe attorney wants to focus
on getting criminal defendants through the process as quickly as possible.
Steven Taylor, 56, is 1 of 5 Republicans and one Democrat vying to win the
judicial seat left open when Judge Olen Underwood retired in September.
Taylor will face fellow Conroe attorneys Ruben Hope, Keith Valigura, Cara
Wood and Gilbert Garcia in the March 7 Republican primary.
Should he win that and any potential runoff, he would face Willis attorney
Nancy McCoy, a Democrat, in the Nov. 7 general election. She is currently
running unopposed in the Democratic primary.
A criminal trial and appellate attorney, Taylor lived in Conroe from
1997-99, left the area and returned three years ago for a permanent stay.
"I liked Conroe when I lived here earlier and decided I wanted to buy a
house here," he said. "I like the people in Montgomery County and I like
One of only about 40 Texas lawyers with national trial appellate
certification, Taylor has worked on 6 death penalty cases and 10 other
capital murder cases; his experience gives him the desire to focus on the
criminal aspect of the courtroom.
"I want to get people incarcerated in jail through the process as quickly
as possible," he said, "instead of sitting there for six months waiting
for trial or resolution. They're sitting there at the expense of
Underwood, who retired from the 284th District Court in September, split
his time between that court and his duties as presiding judge of the
Second Administrative Judicial Region, which he was appointed to in 1996.
Underwood is still the administrative region's judge.
"Judge Underwood did an excellent job as 284th District Court judge, and
as administrative judge he's done an excellent job," Taylor said. "But,
the 284th itself seemed to suffer with all the work on the administrative
side. We've got to be in court all day long to clear cases up."
The race for the 284th court is a "wide-open race for all the candidates,"
said Taylor, a high school football referee for 35 years, noting that each
candidate will have different ideas on how to run the court.
"It has to do with all the candidates as to how they handle their
dockets," he said.
(source: The Concoe Courier)
Warner Considers Ordering DNA Testing in Case of Executed Man
With less than 2 weeks left of his term, time is running out for Gov. Mark
R. Warner to decide whether to order DNA testing in a nearly
quarter-century-old murder case _ a move that could determine if Virginia
executed an innocent man in 1992.
If the tests show Roger Keith Coleman did not rape and murder his
sister-in-law in 1981, it would mark the first time in the United States
an executed person is scientifically proven innocent, say death penalty
opponents, who are keenly aware that such a result could sway public
opinion their way.
"I think it would be the final straw for a lot of people who are on the
fence on the death penalty," said Richard Dieter, executive director of
the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.
An October Gallup poll shows 64 % of Americans still support the death
penalty. But that's the lowest level in 27 years, down from a high of 80 %
in 1994. Warner - a rumored Democratic presidential contender for 2008 -
hopes to finalize negotiations over how the test would be conducted before
his term ends Jan. 14, said spokesman Kevin Hall.
Coleman was convicted and sentenced to death in 1982 for the murder of
19-year-old Wanda McCoy, his wife's sister, who was found raped, stabbed
and nearly beheaded in her home in the southwestern Virginia coal-mining
town of Grundy.
The case drew international attention as the well-spoken and media-savvy
Coleman pleaded his case on talk shows, in magazines and newspapers. Time
Magazine featured the coal miner on its cover. Pope John Paul II
intervened to try and block the execution. Then-Gov. L. Douglas Wilder's
office was flooded with thousands of phone calls and letters of protest
from around the world.
Coleman's attorneys argued he didn't have time to commit the crime, that
tests showed semen from two men was found inside McCoy and that another
man bragged about murdering her.
Despite the controversy, Coleman was executed on May 20, 1992, maintaining
his innocence until the end.
"An innocent man is going to be murdered tonight," the 33-year-old said
moments before he was electrocuted. "When my innocence is proven, I hope
America will realize the injustice of the death penalty as all other
civilized countries have."
DNA tests in 1990 placed Coleman within 2 % of the population of those who
could have produced the semen at the crime scene. Additional blood typing
narrowed Coleman to within 0.2 % of possible perpetrators. His lawyers
said the expert who conducted the test - whom they had hired -
misinterpreted the results.
4 newspapers and Centurion Ministries, a New Jersey organization that
investigated Coleman's case and became convinced of his innocence, sought
a court order to have the evidence retested. After the Virginia Supreme
Court declined to order the testing in 2002, Centurion Ministries asked
Warner to intervene.
Warner's decision has been held up in part because the sample is not in
the state's possession, Hall said. The evidence is being stored in a
Richmond, Calif., lab by the forensic scientist who conducted the initial
Edward Blake, who has kept the sample frozen since 1990, has balked at
returning the evidence to Virginia, arguing that testing should be
conducted at his lab. He has said that Virginia has a vested interest in
tests that would either confirm Coleman's guilt or be inconclusive, since
a result showing Coleman was innocent could tarnish the state's criminal
Blake has also argued that transporting the fragile evidence - about 1/5
of a drop of sperm - could destroy it.
Warner, Blake and Centurion Ministries have been working on a negotiated
process in which an independent lab would take possession of the sample
and test it, Hall said.
"This is an issue that a lot of people have spent a lot of time working on
and it certainly is the governor's desire that an acceptable procedure be
hammered out before we leave office," Hall said.
If the parties can't come to an agreement before Warner leaves, the issue
will fall to Democratic Gov.-elect Tim Kaine, who supports DNA retesting
in the case, said Delacey Skinner, a Kaine spokeswoman.
Tom Scott, a Grundy attorney who helped prosecute the case, said he has no
objection to retesting the DNA, and is confident doing so would confirm
Coleman's guilt - provided the sample has been properly preserved and not
"If the integrity of the sample has been violated in some way, we're gonna
have an inconclusive result which isn't going to settle anything," he
Scott said a mountain of evidence points to Coleman as the killer: There
was no sign of forced entry at McCoy's house, leading investigators to
believe she knew her attacker; Coleman was previously convicted of the
attempted rape of a teacher and was charged with exposing himself to a
librarian 2 months before the murder; a pubic hair found on McCoy's body
was consistent with Coleman's hair; and the original DNA tests placed him
within a tiny fraction of the population who could have left semen at the
Coleman also failed a lie detector test hours before his execution.
"When you add all of this evidence together, it's a connect-the-dots
case," he said. "In my mind, there just wasn't any question about it."
The push to retest the evidence in Coleman's case is more about advancing
an anti-death penalty agenda than trying to determine if an innocent man
was executed, said Dianne Clements, president of the Houston-based victim
advocacy group Justice for All.
Further, she said, new testing is unnecessary and could open up the
nation's justice system to a flood of requests by inmates seeking DNA
retesting in their cases.
"It's been tested before," Clements said. "At what point is it over?"
On the Net: Death Penalty Information Center:
Centurion Ministries: http://www.centurionministries.org/
Justice for All: http://www.jfa.net/
(source: Associated Press)
'Eye for an eye' was counsel for restraint, not license to kill
The death penalty discussion was quite interesting in this newspaper's
Dec. 25 issue. Several of the writers appear to have made fairly obvious
errors in reasoning. One observed, "A majority of the American people
support the death penalty." I wish we could solve ethical problems by
votes; several problems might become so much easier to deal with. But
let's try to apply this procedure. Ninety percent of Austria voted in
favor of being governed by Adolf Hitler. By the writer's reasoning, one
might have several possible conclusions:
- Hitler was a good person since an outstandingly great majority voted for
- Hitler was a good person for that time and day in Austria because an
Austrian majority of that day and age voted for him.
- An Austrian majority of that day and age is obviously significantly
dumber than a U.S.-American majority would have been of that day and age,
and so Hitler was a despicable person nonetheless because a majority of
Americans significantly outweighs any other majority in this world.
I think that we would not intuit an agreement with the 1st conclusion,
that we would find the second too relativistic since also the majority of
U.S.-Americans may see matters differently very soon or since other
majorities of this world might see things differently from the
U.S.-American majority or since some sub-sets of U.S.-American majorities
-- all U.S.-American Roman Catholics, for example -- may see things quite
differently from the majority that the writer had in mind. Finally, I
would sincerely hope that ethnocentric self-exaltation has not quite run
so amok as to endorse the 3rd conclusion.
The writer also charges Stanley Williams to have been fawning under
pressure of the death sentence without any genuine conversion of his
views. But Williams' reputation as a writer and his nomination for the
Nobel Peace Prize certainly speak against such a silly assumption.
A second letter writer's self-indulgent sadism feels fundamentally wrong
and reprehensible in the extreme. The FBI at www.fbi.gov reports for the
year 2000 that violent crimes had a clearance of 47.5 %. The FBI defines
"clearance" as someone having been apprehended and turned over to the
courts. In other words, a murderer has about a 50/50 chance of being
captured and sent to the courts. Take away from this number all violent
crimes committed from passion and pure adrenaline, and the remaining
coldly rational murderers have an even better chance of getting away with
murder. Take away from this number the probably false arrests or the
defendants cleared by judicial error or the ones who go to their graves
protesting their innocence -- such as Stanley Williams -- perhaps even
validly, and the number of murderers not touched by justice increases
again. The result is a pitifully small group of people whose severity of
punishment might do anything for anyone out there. So why would severity
of treatment of the people in jail have any impact at all on the number of
violent crimes committed?
In fact, the crime statistics for the European Union, which has firmly
established that the death penalty is a violation of basic human rights,
show that that group of nations is doing better than the vengeful United
States in keeping violent crimes low.
And the "eye for an eye" justification! Will it ever die? Originally, this
was a rule of restraint: Take only one eye for an eye -- don't overdo
this. Didn't Christians just celebrate the birthday of one who counseled
love of one's enemies? If you could ask him now, would he begin with
"depends on how you define enemy" and then exclude criminals?
But let's just consider the rule as it is and generalize it. If this kind
of tit-for-tat rule were to be sound, then we would rape rapists, steal
from thieves, embezzle from embezzlers, beat up spouse beaters, abuse
child abusers and so on. Somewhere on that line of get-even acts, surely
someone is likely to shut down the series. Such a string of acts would be
raw revenge; it would not have anything to do with justice at all.
Intuitively, I quite agree with John Paul II's statement that a society
has a right to protect itself -- if need be, by killing; but that a
society never has the right to exercise revenge. If a police officer
shoots and kills a homicidal maniac in the process of the maniac
committing homicide, then such killing is justified by general principles
of self-defense or societal defense. But if a society kills a person
already confined, then such killings can only be justified under some
perverse sense of justice, the perversion being the thinly disguised
yearning for retribution -- a troglodyte mentality, in other words.
Certainly, such a step cannot possibly be justified as an enlightened
society protecting itself.
If we were a truly pragmatic lot, we should be looking at correctional
systems that manage to rehabilitate, correctional systems that limit
recidivism and a social structure that reduces the immense lag between
wealth and poverty, the latter being the culprit that tends to lead to
violent behavior at a scale that is offensive to us, particularly -- in
all probability -- because the poor are offensive to us. Dow Chemical and
Union Carbide's murder of 20,000 Indians cost these companies $470 million
in fees. Let's see. That would be about $23,500 a person dead. Take away
some of that for all the people injured and still today living with a
polluted site, and we'd reduce that figure significantly for a person
Perhaps, we could get away with murder at, say, about $15,000 a pop, if we
were to be judged by the same standards as the CEO of the chemical plant
in India was judged. Or shall we think of the hundreds of thousands dead
and dying in Iraq? Whom should we incarcerate and eventually execute in
that connection, one wonders?
(source: The Daytona Beach News-Journal - Reinhold Schlieper, Ph.D., a
philosophy professor, lives in Palm Coast)
Blind vengeance----Death penalty counters church's teachings
Last month while California's governor contemplated the fate of Stanley
Tookie Williams, whom he later had executed, Gov. Jeb Bush signed 2 death
warrants for two men on Florida's death row. Later this month, Clarence
Hill, 47, and Arthur Rutherford, 56, also will be executed by lethal
Both men are guilty of shedding innocent blood. And both have been
imprisoned for some years: their crimes were committed more than 20 years
Yet, is it any more necessary for the state of Florida to kill these men
than it was for California to kill Williams? Does society really make a
coherent statement against killing by killing?
The argument has been made that the application of the death penalty
represents the legitimate self defense of society from an unjust
aggressor, i.e. the murderer. And, historically, the Roman Catholic Church
has conceded the point that the state can rightly apply capital punishment
when absolutely necessary, i.e. when otherwise impossible to defend
society. There is, in church teaching, no moral equivalence between the
execution of the guilty after due process of law and the willful
destruction of innocent life that happens with abortion or euthanasia.
However, Pope John Paul II pointed out in Evangelium Vitae (No. 56): given
the organization of today's penal system and the option of imposing life
imprisonment without the possibility of parole, such an "absolute
necessity" is "practically non-existent."
Also, it is difficult to defend the "necessity" of executing someone when
often his accomplice, in exchange for information or testimony, is given
through plea bargaining a lesser sentence. And while some loved ones seek
"closure," it is hard to see how capital punishment as "social
retribution" or "institutional vengeance" really serves the purpose of
punishment which should be designed to redress the disorder caused by the
offense. The death penalty cannot bring the victims back to life.
Even from a purely pragmatic or utilitarian point of view, the death
penalty cannot be defended. It is not an effective deterrent to crime.
Texas has executed more criminals than any other state, yet, it still has
one of the highest murder rates in the nation. And the death penalty is
not cost effective. It costs the state less to imprison someone for the
remainder of his natural life than to execute him. Given that it is
irreversible, society has rightly provided that it be applied only after
lengthy and expensive legal appeals. And, in spite of this, there are more
than 400 documented cases of wrongly convicted persons executed in the
U.S. during the last century.
Willful murder is a heinous crime; it cries to God for justice. Yet, God
did not require Cain's life for having spilt Abel's blood. While God
certainly punished history's first murderer, he nevertheless put a mark on
him to protect Cain from those wishing to kill him to avenge Abel's murder
(cf. Genisis 4:15). Like Cain, the condemned prisoner on death row - for
all the evil of his crimes - remains a person. Human dignity - that of the
convicted as well as our own - is best served by not resorting to this
extreme and unnecessary punishment. Modern society has the means to
protect itself without the death penalty.
The commutation to life imprisonment would serve the common good of all by
helping break our society's spiral of violence for the "eye for an eye"
mentality will just end up making us all blind.
(source: Ocala Star-Banner - Bishop Thomas Wenski serves the Roman
Catholic Diocese of Orlando, Florida)
Jacksonville pastor answers the call
The Rev. James Brown says it is his duty as a Christian to speak-up
against the death penalty.
He believes it's what Jesus would do.
"I can't see Jesus lethally injecting someone based on some evidence or
what someone believes to be true," said Brown, the pastor of First Baptist
Church on Broadhurst Road in Jacksonville.
Brown is convinced that Jesus would be willing to let a guilty man go free
if it meant saving the life of an innocent man wrongly accused.
"State-sponsored murder is still murder," Brown said. "Even if the
government authorizes it, that doesn't make it right. I think the
Christian community has the responsibility of rising to the occasion, even
when it may be against the will of the masses of people."
He has also welcomed folks from the People of Faith Against the Death
Penalty - a nonprofit, interfaith organization whose mission is to abolish
the death penalty - to hold events at First Baptist Church. Brown has
worked hard to try and convince state legislators to temporarily suspend
In December, the organization gave Brown the outstanding community service
award, recognizing him for his leadership in educating and mobilizing
faith communities to act to abolish the death penalty.
"Rev. Brown has continued to answer the call," said Alyson Newman,
president of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, in her
presentation to Brown at the awards banquet in Raleigh. "He has opened the
doors of First Baptist Church for events on the death penalty, and he has
encouraged his flock and the greater Jacksonville community to seek
alternative solutions to violent crime and the death penalty."
It's an award that means a great deal to Brown, although it's not one he
thinks he deserves alone.
"I am honored, and I accept the award on behalf of all those who have
worked diligently to rectify something that is clearly wrong," Brown said.
Doesn't mince words
While Brown can mesmerize listeners with his life experiences weaved into
stories with memorable lessons, this gentle preacher doesn't mince words.
He's given almost 40 years to the cloth and will celebrate his 24th year
at First Baptist Church this June.
His faith tells him that he can't accept ending another person's life
because a prosecutor convinced a jury that someone was guilty beyond a
It's just not enough.
"We are told that we are not to play God," Brown said. "Since only God can
give life, it is my position - and there are many Christians who share it
- that only God should take life."
Mistakes are made. DNA evidence has set several people free, including Leo
Waters of New Bern. He was wrongfully convicted in Onslow County of armed
robbery, kidnapping, 1st-degree rape and first-degree sexual offense in
January 1982 and was released from prison in January 2003 after 2 DNA
tests proved he couldn't have committed the crime.
Gov. Mike Easley granted Waters a pardon of innocence in August. In 2001,
Easley granted a full pardon of innocence to Lesly Jean, a former Camp
Lejeune Marine who spent nine years in prison for a rape he didn't commit.
"Even when we research an issue, we still have the capability of being
wrong," Brown said. "Until we can know - not just as a lawyer says beyond
a shadow of a doubt - but until we can know, we have no right to take a
Evidence not enough
As a black man, who grew up in Rocky Mount, Brown, 58, said he knows there
was a time when evidence wasn't even necessary to sentence a man to death.
"To execute didn't always mean to find the guilty," Brown said. "There was
a time when all you had to do is say he was black, and he was guilty."
An imperfect and at times tainted justice system concerns Brown when a
sentence of death is an option.
"It is statistically proven that the death penalty has been inflicted on a
bias basis, whether it's racial, economics or education," Brown said. "The
question remains for the sake of executing those whom you think may be
guilty, how many innocent people would you execute?"
In September 2001, Robert Bacon Jr. was scheduled to be executed. Bacon
admitted to the 1987 murder of Marine Staff Sgt. Glennie Clark and was
convicted of 1st-degree murder by an all-white, Onslow County jury. His
co-defendant, Bonnie Sue Clark, who is white, was also convicted of
Bonnie Sue Clark was given a life sentence. Bacon was sentenced to death.
Brown, members of the People of Faith Against the Death Penalty and other
Onslow County residents refused to let Bacon die without a fight. They
believed his death sentence was the result of racial bias.
"Just two days after receiving the cold call for help, Rev. Brown had a
crowd of 50 people at a press conference at his church at noon on a work
day," Newman said. "Rev. Brown helped organize speakers, hosted the event
and presented a moving poem about why, especially in the wake of Sept. 11,
our government should not be bringing terror - in the form of the death
penalty - upon its own citizens."
After sitting on death row for 14 years and just two days before he was to
die by lethal injection in early October 2001, Bacon's life was spared.
Easley commuted his sentence to life imprisonment.
Brown doesn't propose that North Carolina should just let its criminals go
free, but he thinks the money spent on death penalty cases could do more
good if it was spent elsewhere.
"We need to focus our energy and resources on trying to stop crime," Brown
said. "I believe some of the money spent trying to punish the guilty would
be better spent trying to regain America's innocence."
"Unworthy" is how Brown describes himself when asked about the award he
received. The recognition was not a sign to him that his work is done.
"I plan to work to get this church and as many churches as I can to
actively support the People of Faith with prayers and finances to keep
this issue before the public," Brown said.
(source: Jacksonville Daily News)
D.A. says low funding cause for delayed trials
The court system in North Carolina, and the criminal justice system as a
whole, is in "terrible shape" due to underfunding by government, including
the lack of provided resources and offered incentives, said District
Attorney Dewey Hudson, whose district covers Sampson County.
In an interview with The Sampson Independent, the district attorney said
that his office has been saddled with more responsibilities over the
years, but that those extra duties have not come with increased
compensation in the way of personnel to get the job done in a timely
manner. And Hudson's office is not the only one, he said.
"They're not giving us the resources," said Hudson.
He said that there are 30 murder cases currently pending in the district,
which also includes Jones, Onslow and Duplin counties.
In Sampson County alone, there are 2 triple murder cases that have had to
be put on hold due to the time it takes to get lab reports on evidence
submitted to the State Bureau of Investigation. Hudson points to a murder
more than a year and a half ago as a perfect example.
Kenneth Hartley, 23, stands accused in the murder of three family members,
including the stabbing deaths of his mother and 9-year-old stepbrother and
strangling his 13-year-old stepsister to death after allegedly raping her.
And the case is at a stand still.
"I need to know the lab results before I can perform my constitutional
duties and make a decision as to whether to seek the death penalty," said
Hudson. "How can I do that when I don't know what all the evidence is?
Incredibly, the defendant has been in jail since June 2004."
The district attorney said that the first lab report was just received
recently, and the office is still awaiting one more.
He said that it is "absolutely absurd" to still be waiting for evidence a
year and a half after a murder.
"Unfortunately, this is becoming the norm in my district," the district
attorney said. "It's so unfair to victims' families to endure this. I feel
so sorry for the families of victims for having to wait so long seeking
Hudson said that he has hundreds of drug cases that have been pending for
months upon months because prosecutors are awaiting lab reports from the
"The earliest we get anything back (from the SBI lab) is 8 months," said
Hudson. Drug analysis takes a year on average, and DNA analysis is "longer
than that," he said.
However, Hudson said that the blame does not fall with the SBI. That
agency is struggling with a larger workload and limited personnel just as
the D.A.'s office is, he said.
"That just shows you, it's not the D.A.'s office," said Hudson. "It's the
Hudson said that he currently has 14 permanent assistant district
attorneys that are responsible for prosecuting everything from minor
traffic violations, in the form of inspection violations, to capital
And that number has stayed stagnant for the last 10 years, even while more
responsibilities have been put on those assistant district attorneys
through laws such as the Crime Victims Rights Act, which states that
victims have the right to be notified of the dates and times of court
proceedings and the status of appeals.
Victims wishing to be kept informed throughout the trial and appeals
process can notify the prosecutor who is handling the case, the law
"But they gave us no personnel to implement that act," Hudson pointed out.
He said that some assistance has been received. Hudson secured 2
additional prosecutors from a federal gun grant paid by the federal
government and Duplin, Sampson and Onslow counties, but even those will be
lost in a matter of months.
"Even with those 2, we're swamped," said Hudson. "And I lose both of those
"It's not only about funding," said Hudson. "You have to have salaries
Additional prosecutors is a positive, but the district attorney said that
he wants to be able to keep talented assistant district attorneys in the
courtroom. As he has been told by an assistant district attorney of his
own, "We don't just need another warm body," but someone who can get the
Hudson said that his assistant district attorneys start at an average
annual salary of $38,000. The average salary of assistant district
attorneys in Hudsons district is just over $60,000. Hudson said that they
go to three more years of law school and most have tens of thousands of
dollars of educational debt in the form of student loans.
"I have to deal with defense lawyers who apparently have an unlimited
budget and who earn more on one case than my assistant district attorneys
make in a year," said Hudson.
Those same incentives could also act to help the SBI, whose experienced
lab workers often leave to other states for bigger pay, Hudson said.
And while the D.A.'s Office maintains its numbers, the numbers concerning
crime have only risen over the years.
"Crime has certainly increased in my district, also what is required to
prosecute these cases," said Hudson.
The district attorney said that he has heard the stance against rising
crime that the state should take is "not to build more prisons, but to
build more schools."
"That's all fine and dandy, but when a guy like Carl Stuffel (convicted
murderer set to be released in 2006) is being released because we don't
have enough prison beds, thats a problem," said Hudson. "The number one
responsibility of federal, state and local government is the protection
and safety of its citizens. And in North Carolina, were failing to do
(source: The Sampson Independent)
Book Review----Civil rights pioneers; Stanley, Breathitt risked much to
advance justice in Kentucky
'A Distant Light" is a carefully researched and thoughtfully written
reflection on racial justice in Kentucky. Racism and mob violence in
post-Civil War Kentucky are the book's primary themes, but at its heart,
this is the story of two great Kentucky governors, Augustus Owsley "A.O."
Stanley and Edward T. "Ned" Breathitt Jr., both from western Kentucky,
whose bravery and clarity of purpose helped bring to an end the last
vestiges of government-sponsored racial injustice throughout the state.
Author Bill Cunningham is a respected western Kentucky circuit court judge
and the author of 6 books about his native region. "A Distant Light" is
almost certainly his best work yet.
Against the backdrop of vigilante justice that accounted for more than 350
unlawful executions or lynchings of mostly African Americans throughout
Kentucky, Cunningham tells the spellbinding story of the 1917 trial of
Lube Martin, a black man accused of killing a white man in Murray. Central
to this book is the heroic effort of Gov. A.O. Stanley, a resident of
Henderson, to assure Martin's safekeeping while in the state's custody
Stanley's actions are made all the more daring by Cunningham's accounts of
angry lynch mobs whose appetite for vengeance -- often motivated as much
by envy and greed as by retaliation -- took the lives and property of many
former slaves throughout the region.
One particularly horrific account involved a black man accused of raping a
white woman near Mayfield in 1906. Spurred by a bloodthirsty crowd
surrounding the courthouse, the Graves County court tried, convicted and
hanged the accused in the Mayfield square all in less than one hour. One
may say the modern judicial system allows death row inmates too many
appeals, but the Mayfield example is a disturbing reminder that, without
forceful judicial intervention, mob rule could be the norm.
Cunningham is at his best as a historian when he recounts Lube Martin's
saga. The story begins with a deadly altercation between Martin and a
member of a prominent Murray family and Martin's subsequent arrest. The
story then unfolds with a midnight train ride by Stanley from Louisville
to Murray where Stanley averts the hanging of the Calloway County circuit
judge and commonwealth's attorney by an angry gang of Murray farmers
demanding that Martin be handed over for lynching.
Stanley then delivers a rousing speech in the courthouse to a swarm of
angry citizens -- mostly tobacco farmers who only months before helped
vote Stanley into office by a wide margin, in large part due to Stanley's
support of tobacco farmers while a member of Congress. With order
restored, news of Stanley's dramatic rescue "reverberated throughout the
nation," according to Cunningham, as papers across the land lauded Stanley
for both his courage and his eloquence. Cunningham's analysis of the
ensuing trial and appeal is as enlightening as it is gut-wrenching.
In the book's second half, the reader is introduced to another western
Kentuckian, Hopkinsville native Ned Breathitt. Breathitt is described as a
New Deal Democrat, like so many other west Kentuckians, who had seen his
impoverished and isolated region transformed by TVA electrification and
other federal programs sponsored by President Franklin D. Roosevelt's
Cunningham explains how 38-year-old Breathitt defeated former Gov. A.B.
"Happy" Chandler by a wide margin in the 1963 Democratic gubernatorial
primary, only to falter in the lead-up to the general election when
then-Gov. Bert Combs decided to issue an executive order ending
segregation in all public accommodations statewide. Cunningham asserts
that Breathitt's challenger, Louie Nunn, used Combs' action to arouse
racial fear and resentment among Kentucky voters.
The book makes a compelling case that in the fall of 1963, a major event
in the civil rights struggle at the national level changed attitudes about
civil rights in Kentucky, which helped Breathitt win the election by a
razor thin margin. The book ends with interesting details regarding
Breathitt's emergence as a national civil rights leader and his close
friendship with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
With this book, Cunningham gives to Kentuckians a well-documented
perspective on our violent and not-too-distant past. This point-of-view is
not something commonly taught in history courses; nonetheless, all
Kentuckians should understand our ignoble past where race relations are
concerned. Perhaps if we do, we will be better equipped to deal with the
legacy of that sad history.
Equally important, "A Distant Light" lends strong credence to the notion
that important contributions of many different kinds come from across our
state, including that sometimes forgotten region Cunningham calls west
(source: Louisville Courier-Journal; A Mayfield native, Alex Waldrop is a
partner in the Louisville law firm of Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs)
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