Where race puts you on death row

I happened to be in London last week on the day the Stephen Lawrence report was released. From personal experience, I know the Met is riddled with racism; I've sat in pubs listening to cops prattle on about "nig-nogs" and once talked to a black policeman forced to abandon his career because of the way his colleagues treated him. Shocking though all this and the Lawrence tragedy is, however, I couldn't help coming to an unavoidable conclusion: that most British policemen are pussycats compared to their US counterparts.

The longer I live here, in fact, the more I realise how deeply embedded racism is. Slavery made it such an intrinsic part of American life that today it simply does not occur to most whites - including nice, middle-class, "liberal", touchy-feely ones - that the ghost of Jim Crow still stalks their country and that blacks often receive hopelessly short shrift from police and courts. If you're black and the victim of a crime, the ensuing "investigation" is likely to be even more sloppy and racist than the Lawrence one; if you are a black suspect, then the chances of a scrupulous investigation are even lower.

In 1982, for example, a young black couple - Marilyn Green, 19, and Jerry Hillard, 18 - were shot dead in a park in Chicago's south side. By the following day the police had decided who did it: a 27-year-old black man with a criminal record named Tony Porter. Detectives duly rustled up a (black) "witness" who swore that he had seen Porter fire the fatal shots. And that was just about it. No serious defence was offered. Porter had an IQ of 51 but that did not stop him being sentenced to death, and from 1983 he sat on death row, awaiting the electric chair and then the "nicer" alternative of lethal injection. He was due to die on 25 September last year and was just 48 hours from death when he was given a temporary reprieve. Had a fluke not just occurred, he would very likely be dead by now.

What happened was that an enterprising lawyer - working not for the money but because he cared - phoned a journalism teacher named David Protess, who teaches at Northwestern University in the affluent Chicago suburbs. Protess is among the 30 per cent of Americans who oppose the death penalty and sometimes sets his students projects to investigate death penalty cases. When Porter was given his short procedural reprieve, Protess put four budding Woodward/Bernsteins on the case, all white kids from suburbia who'd hardly ever even been to the south side.

They moved swiftly. They tracked down potential witnesses the police hadn't even bothered to look for. They found the mother of the murdered woman, who told them she had last seen the victims in the company of another man. They pored over court records. They visited the scene of the murder and re-enacted it. The police "witness" had claimed that, at night, he could recognise Porter's face at 500 feet. Even in broad daylight, the students found they could not make out each other's faces from that distance - and from that moment, they were convinced of Porter's innocence. The gunman was left-handed, Porter right-handed. The students traced the "witness" who then immediately retracted his statement, telling them he had been "threatened, harassed and intimidated" by Chicago police into fingering Porter.

Then, during the Christmas holidays, one of the young women on the student team went home to Milwaukee, where - they had discovered - the man whom Green's mother had spotted now lived. At this point, Protess brought in an 18-stone private detective and former policeman to protect his students in case it became necessary. But they brought out a video camera, and within minutes the middle-aged man, Alstory Simon, was confessing: "Before I knew anything I started shooting," he told them. "I must have close to busted off about six rounds."

Thus four enthusiastic students had done what Chicago's finest and Porter's publicly funded lawyers had failed to do: they had not only proved Porter innocent but had also found the real murderer. Porter, with the understatement of the child that mentally he is, said: "It's like a heavy load's been lifted. I just thank God that everything came out all right." Last month he literally leapt into the arms of Protess when released from prison. Simon has now been charged.

What is frightening is that Porter is the tenth person to be released from death row like this in Illinois alone in the past two decades. Nationally, no fewer than 75 people have been similarly set free since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976. A pathetic police "investigation" of a crime with black victims and suspects, combined with ineffectual lawyers, all but sealed Porter's fate. Some states pay publicly appointed lawyers only $20-40 an hour to defend murder suspects, with a ceiling of $2,000, a sum for which the kind of lawyers who defended O J Simpson would barely pick up the phone. Yet four-fifths of people charged with murder here are indigent and dependent on this system.

I fear it is a system still linked, subconsciously at least, to the lynching of black men. In Jimmy Carter's state of Georgia, to take one example, more than 60 per cent of murder victims since 1972 have been black; but of the 22 executed in that period, 20 were charged with the murders of whites. Blacks represent 36 per cent of the 3,549 people now on death row - the US is one of the world's top five executing nations alongside Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and China - though blacks comprise only 12 per cent of the population. Heaven knows how many, like Tony Porter, are innocent. British policemen may not be perfect, but at least we don't still put people to death as a result of their flawed "investigations".

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.