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The New South 1999
The case of Brian Baldwin
Brian Baldwin took his final steps to Alabamas 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 sheriffs 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 behalfno 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 havent 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 states economy, he was conveniently out of the country most of the week before Baldwins 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 Baldwins 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 Baldwins 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 Brians lawyers filed for Judge Key to recuse himself. Judge Kittrell, choice number three, was assigned on Thursday night. It wasnt 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 Brians 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 Brians 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, "Its coming, it has to come. If there is one iota of doubt they cant 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 Alabamas death squad was fiddling with the phones to the governors 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?
Brians 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 reporters 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. Brians clothing had no blood on it while Ed Horsleys did. Other footprints and tire tracks were found at the crime scene but not Brians, 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 generals 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. Im glad for her and I respect Jamess 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 couldnt 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.