A professor at the University of Rhode Island is working on a research project that digs into the issues of the death penalty and race over the past few decades. Associate Professor of history Robert Widell is studying how the death penalty and race intersect in negative ways.
His research focuses on the story of an African American man in Alabama in the 1970s who was the first, with his family, to move into a previously all-white neighborhood. After efforts to drive Johnny Harris and his family out of the neighborhood failed, the residents had him arrested and charged with robbery and the rape of a young white woman.
When sentenced to five consecutive life terms in prison, Harris became involved in prison organizing. After a rebellion in 1974 where a prison guard was killed, the state decided to single out Harris to be charged under the death penalty even though there were no claims that he was involved in the physical killing of the guard.
Widell said he thinks the United States should get rid of the death penalty. “The idea that we have the power and authority to kill somebody is beyond my comprehension,” he said. He started his project about a year and a half ago, and he plans to turn the project into a book eventually.
“It’s a long standing historical phenomenon,” Widell said. “It goes back to how race has always been a factor in the way Americans think about race and crime and who is entitled to justice and who is not.”
It’s not just African Americans that face these problems, according to Widell. He said that the overwhelming majority of African Americans who face capital charges are poor, leaving our criminal justice system to find them representation that usually isn’t adequate or effective. “It’s not just African Americans, it’s poor people and people that can’t get good council,” he said, “so when you throw that in it becomes problematic and the decision who to prosecute and bring charges to has been racially inflected as well.”
Through his book, Widell said he wants to help others understand some of the roots of the issues we are faced with today in the United States. “There’s a longer history of using the criminal justice system and prosecuting African Americans in wildly disproportionate ways,” he said.
Widell said he does believe there have been some positive developments within the criminal justice system throughout the years, such as the ability to use DNA evidence and putting limits on trying children as adults. He said that, through this research, he also hopes to help others gain a better understanding of the history behind the criminal justice system and the ways in which people have built and sustained movements for social, political and economic change. “The reality is that the death penalty remains disproportionately applied to black and brown people and to poor people,” he said, “I don’t think that there’s any real way to address that.”