The New South 1999


Claudia Whitman

Brian
Baldwin took his final steps to Alabama’s electric chair on Thursday night,
June 17, 1999. Twenty-two years earlier, on arriving on death row at the Holman
Unit in Atmore, guards had pushed him in front of this ominous device and
taunted him about the horrible death he would suffer. Brian was 18, African
American, and a recent escapee from a North Carolina youth correctional facility
when he and his friend, Ed Horsley, picked up a ride with a 16-year-old white
girl. Two days later, they were in Monroeville, Alabama and something had gone
terribly wrong. The sheriff’s department found the body of Naomi Rolon in a
clearing up a dirt road. Brian had led them to the last place he had seen her
alive. He had no knowledge of the murder.

Cut to the Wilcox
County, Alabama jail, 1977. Sheriff Moody Maness and his deputies had spent
hours beating and cattle prodding Brian and Ed, until both had signed a variety
of confessions. Soon they found themselves, two Black teenagers, in court
separately with an all white jury, prosecutor, judge, and defender in a county
that is 46 percent Black. It was normal, though illegal even then, to strike all
African Americans from juries. In one day Brian was tried and convicted, which
was not surprising, since his lawyer offered not one bit of testimony on his
behalf—no evidence, no witnesses. Brian claimed he had been beaten into the
confessions. Although no evidence put him at the scene of the crime he was
convicted in half an hour. The jury recommended a life sentence. The judge
overruled them and gave him a death sentence. It was 1977 in the Old South.

Today in the New
South things haven’t changed. There is a new governor in Alabama, a man who
claims to care about the African American community, a man who wants to improve
education and increase economic development. He is so ardent about his state’s
economy, he was conveniently out of the country most of the week before
Baldwin’s execution, drumming up investments in France. Governor Siegelman did
not even arrive back in the state until the evening of the midnight execution.

Siegelman, who
campaigned on a law and order platform, went through the motions of looking at
Baldwin’s case. He even wrote in his denial of clemency that he was
"troubled" by some aspects of it, but obviously he was not troubled enough.
What was being asked in the end was that the execution be stopped until
unanswered questions and testimony could be considered. Brian Baldwin’s entire
case was tainted by acute racial discrimination, prosecutorial misconduct,
police brutality leading to coerced confession, incomplete transcripts, withheld
evidence, and ineffective assistance of counsel.

Brian was given a
"hearing" the Monday before his execution. The first judge assigned to the
case in the Circuit Court of Alabama recused himself. He was running for
reelection and wanted to avoid controversy. The second, unbelievably, was Robert
E. Lee Key, the judge who had convicted Brian in 1977 and who had subsequently
ruled on all his appeals. He came out of retirement to deny Brian relief. His
denial was overturned when Brian’s lawyers filed for Judge Key to recuse
himself. Judge Kittrell, choice number three, was assigned on Thursday night. It
wasn’t until 2:30 PM Friday that subpoenas were issued for a Monday 9:00 AM
hearing. Valiantly, a team went out to serve them and a few of the many new
witnesses for Brian did make it to court that morning. One was a man who had
seen the bruises on Brian after the beatings. Judge Kittrell was not interested
in hearing the new evidence. He obtained the one thing the prosecution wanted; a
recantation by the 75-year-old, ailing Black deputy who had sworn that he
witnessed the beatings in the jail back in 1977.

How could this
have happened? Deputy Nathaniel Manzie, suffering from lung cancer and residing
in a nursing home in Selma, suffered an anxiety attack when state troopers came
to take him down to Monroeville to be questioned. He feared for the safety of
his family. His blood pressure soaring, he spoke by phone with the judge and
denied witnessing the beatings, though he stuck to his story that he had never
seen Brian give a waiver of his rights to the sheriff. These waivers were key in
Brian’s conviction, since the confessions would not have been admitted without
them. Did Judge Kittrell continue the hearing until proper testimony could be
obtained from all parties? No, he stopped the hearing and ruled against Brian.

I was honored to
be with Brian most of his last day, along with his family and other loved ones.
Brian was, perhaps, the most courageous person I have ever known. He spent that
day making us feel good, assuring us that he was okay, that the stay of
execution was going to come. I also knew it was coming. It seemed there was no
way that the courts could look at the new evidence and not grant a stay. Many
prominent people were convinced that the case against Brian Baldwin was faulty.
The Pope, Jimmy Carter, Coretta Scott King, John Lewis, and 25 other members of
the Black Congressional Caucus, the Archbishop of the Alabama Diocese had all
been so certain of the injustice at every level in Brian’s case that they had
all written the governor urging him to grant a stay so that a proper
investigation could get under way. The rational mind said, "It’s coming, it
has to come. If there is one iota of doubt they can’t go forward. It would be
murder…."

And murder it
was. The killing machine rolled forward and took the life of Brian Baldwin. But
not before he was in the electric chair, waiting for over 40 minutes while
Alabama’s death squad was fiddling with the phones to the governor’s office.
Forty minutes, waiting to be electrocuted. Siegelman should have stopped the
execution until all testimony was heard. We were talking about innocence here,
not of any wrongdoing, but innocence of capital murder. Eighty innocent people
have been released from death rows across the country since we resumed
executions in 1977. How many more never got to prove their innocence, like
Brian?

Brian’s
codefendant, executed in 1996, had written a confession back in 1985 that Brian
was not even at the scene of the crime. He had apologized on TV for the murder
right before his execution. Three people who were in the jail at the time of the
coerced confessions had given affidavits about the beatings. "Missing" tapes
that were a crucial part of his trial were found in the court reporter’s
private file after she had denied their existence. The transcripts did not
reflect what was in the tapes. The "missing" murder weapon was not missing
and it had been examined for blood and fingerprints and had none. Brian’s
clothing had no blood on it while Ed Horsley’s did. Other footprints and tire
tracks were found at the crime scene but not Brian’s, nor those of the car he
had stolen.

To be certain,
Brian was no saint. He had been a juvenile offender. But he was not a murderer.
The court believed him in 1977 when he "confessed," but suddenly he was not
believable when he explained that he had confessed because the confession was
beaten out of him. In that sham of a hearing, he pleaded for a polygraph test.
The FBI expert for the Southeast was brought to the prison to administer it. The
attorney general’s office managed to block this. He pleaded for DNA testing,
to prove that no rape had occurred, for although he was never charged with rape,
it was always alleged and portrayed as fact by the media. Mysteriously, the test
could not be done because the material was "lost."

So, it is
business as usual in Alabama. In January, outgoing governor Fob James commuted
Judith Ann Neeley, a white woman who definitely committed the murders for which
she was convicted. I’m glad for her and I respect James’s decision. Governor
Siegelman, who came to office with huge support from the African American
community has also seen much of his legislation pass through favorably because
of efforts on the part of Black legislators. Yet one can only shudder at the
irony that his predecessor, a definite Old South icon, stopped the execution of
a white woman and Siegelman couldn’t find it in his heart to do the same for a
Black man whose guilt was in question. For me, and for many of the people who
knew and loved Brian Baldwin and the many people nationally and worldwide who
rallied to his support, there is only sorrow and disgust at the injustice and
immorality of the actions taken by the state of Alabama. This is 1999 in the New
South.  Z

Claudia
Whitman is coeditor of
Frontiers of Justice, Vol. 1, The Death
Penalty and Vol. 2, Coddling or Common Sense? and editor/contributor of the
forthcoming
Saga of Shame-How Race Sets the U.S. Death Penalty Agenda.