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Death By Bigotry



Is North Carolina going to execute a man this Friday because he is gay? That’s the disturbing question raised by the case of Eddie Hartman, who is scheduled to be put to death by lethal injection this Friday, October 3.


 


Eddie Hartman is a murderer and a gay man. These facts would not be connected had the prosecution not mentioned Hartman’s sexual orientation repeatedly during the penalty phase of his trial for murder. This was a blatant attempt to discourage the jury from considering Hartman’s abusive childhood in sentencing.


It worked. Rather than sentencing Hartman to life in prison, the jury chose to ignore mitigating factors and send him to the execution chamber.


 


The prosecutor admitted he’d waved the pink flag before the jury in a deliberate appeal to homophobia.


 


At a hearing on an appeal of the death sentence, the district attorney, David Beard, admitted he’d waved the pink flag before the jury in a deliberate appeal to homophobia. He wanted, he said, to minimize Hartman’s history of sexual abuse, which he claimed was “different for homosexuals.” But this appeal was heard by the same district court that had convicted Hartman


– and by confirming the death sentence, the court ignored the taint to justice produced by this bizarre and specious argument.


 


Hartman’s sexual orientation had nothing at all to do with the crime he committed. Nothing. Hartman was 29 when he was convicted of shooting one of his mother’s ex-boyfriends. Hartman grew up in a home from hell. His mother was a deeply disturbed woman who tried to commit suicide multiple times, slashing her wrists before her child’s eyes. She had six husbands and a series of other boyfriends while Hartman was growing up.


 


Three of those six husbands beat young Hartman regularly — once he was beaten in the head with a club, rendering him unconscious and sending him to the hospital. He also was continually subjected to sexual abuse — repeatedly forced to perform oral sex on an uncle when he was eight years old. Later, he was molested by an older stepbrother. Given this terrifying upbringing, it’s not surprising that Hartman grew up to be a substance abuser and an alcoholic.


 


At the sentencing hearing, however, the prosecutor gambled — correctly, as it turns out — that the jury’s prejudice toward gays would nullify the impact of Hartman’s history of sexual abuse as a mitigating factor. When Hartman’s mother begged for mercy for her son because of the abuse he suffered, the prosecutor asked her, “Is your son not a homosexual?”


 


Beard later said to Hartman’s aunt, “Well, you knew that Mr. Hartman is a homosexual. You’ve heard that.”


Despite the fact that the judge had ruled that raising the issue of Hartman’s homosexuality was highly improper and irrelevant, the prosecutor continued, asking, “Did you know what sexual persuasion [sic] the defendant was?”


 


The jury voted to execute Hartman, even though a number of facts supported a plea for leniency: the crime was not planned but committed in a drunken stupor on the spur of the moment; after he became a suspect, Hartman cooperated with police and led them to the well- concealed place where he’d buried the body; and at trial Hartman expressed deep remorse for his crime.


 


This will be a test case of whether elected officials will stand up for justice in the current climate of anti-gay backlash.


 


Now it’s up to North Carolina Governor Mike Easley, a Democrat, to decide whether or not to commute Hartman’s death sentence to life imprisonment. This will be a test case of whether elected officials will stand up for justice in the current climate of anti-gay backlash following the Supreme Court’s ruling striking down sodomy laws. (It should be noted that the gay-baiting prosecutorial arguments made during Hartman’s trial occurred at the time of a similar backlash generated by the national debate over gays in the military and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” — a backlash that led then to the spike of violent physical attacks on gays, lesbians and transgender people all over the country.)


 


That a man could be executed because he is gay should be repugnant in a civilized democracy. Sadly, there have been many similar cases. For example, in Missouri in 2001, Stanley Lingar was executed after the prosecutor used Lingar’s homosexuality to inflame the jury and secure the death sentence. In Oklahoma in December 2002, Jay Wesley Neill was executed after a prosecutor urged the jury to consider the defendant’s sexual orientation, telling them, “You’re deciding life or death for a person that’s a vowed [sic] homosexual.”


An appellate court ruled that it was wrong for the prosecution to use those gay-baiting arguments, but found it a “harmless error.” Not, of course, for Neill, who was put to death by the state.


 


In the Hartman case, the prosecutorial misconduct should be obvious. The district attorney has admitted under oath deliberately employing a gay-baiting strategy and arguments. As a result, Hartman’s death sentence has been poisoned by bigotry. Had the unscientific and obscurantist concoction that the soul- destroying effects of sexual abuse are somehow “different for homosexuals” not been paraded before the jury, there is every reason to believe that Hartman would have been sent to prison for the rest of his days, rather than to the execution chamber. Which seems more than adequate punishment for an inexcusable crime that was, however, committed on impulse.


 


To heap more doubts on North Carolina’s ability to determine the death penalty fairly, Hartman’s trial defense was clearly below par. No evidence was presented by defense counsel in the trial, and Hartman’s then-lawyer was later suspended from the bar for failure to pay his taxes–which suggests that that Hartman didn’t have a legal eagle defending him.


 


In urging clemency for Hartman, Amnesty International has joined all the major national gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights organizations, including the Human Rights Campaign, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the LAMBDA Legal Defense and Education Fund.


 


This verdict, achieved as it was by blatant prosecutorial misconduct, has left a shameful stain of bigotry on the North Carolina legal system. Will Governor Easley have the courage to stand up for the honor of his state and erase this stain? By this Friday, we will know the answer.


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Doug Ireland is a New York-based media critic and commentator.


 


http://www.tompaine.com/feature2.cfm/ID/9011/

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