By Victor Ochieng
Residents of Louisiana’s Caddo Parish entrusted a Black man, James Stewart, with the position of District Attorney through a November 2014 election. His election to the position brought a glimmer of hope that the number of Black men receiving death sentence would eventually slow down.
Admittedly, the rate at which accused persons are being sentenced to death has been a matter of concern for many of the parish’s residents. In the period between 2010 and 2014, the parish topped all other places across the United States in the number of death sentences. The cases handled within this period were presided over by Dale Cox, the man responsible for one third of all death row inmates in Louisiana.
The position of a district attorney is a very sensitive one that requires tactical balance between one’s political ambitions and personal reputation as defined by service delivery. To appear to be working, some DA’s choose to rack up the number of convictions, even when the convictions aren’t justifiable.
Cox represents that image. The Guardian reports that Cox’s profiles compiled by The New Yorker and 60 Minutes paint him as a heartless man who was dismissive of the existence of racism in his actions. He’s also reported to have shared the same office with a colleague who had a portrait of a local ku klux klan leader mounted on the wall.
The high hopes put on the newly elected DA may also dwindle. Stewart hasn’t announced any plans of digging into past convictions handled by Cox.
Nevertheless, Stewart has acknowledged that mass incarcerations among members of the Black community is worrying and that something needs to be done to curb it, although he says the community is responsible for finding solutions.
“We can’t allow some people who could be saved to be caught up,” said Stewart. “That’s the hardest part of the job, identifying them: the murderers and the rapists, clearly, they are gone. But our closet is getting full and so it is starting to spill back out. Economically, we can’t afford mass incarceration. So we’ve got to deal with the problem, but it is not the DA or the sheriff’s problem. It is a community problem.”
The racial composition of the U.S. criminal justice system is also worrying. The Guardian reported that 95% of U.S. DA’s are white yet a majority of those locked up behind bars are non-white. This is even more questionable since whites make a notable majority of the general American population.
Without a doubt, if the Caddo Parish DA raises the number of Black juries to a fair level, it might make a huge difference. Statistics compiled by Reprieve Australia, an anti-death penalty advocate, show that having Black people as juries raises the probability of an acquittal.
On his part, Reverend Theron Jackson of Morning Star Baptist Church in Shreveport said even by raising the number of Black DA’s, problems facing the Black community such as poor education and poverty need a lot more to address.
“A DA can’t save this city. He can do his part, but if you’ve got seven things dysfunctional, you change one, you still got six that are dysfunctional,” said Jackson.