Witnesses routinely report that, when the switch is thrown, the condemned prisoner "cringes," "leaps," and "fights the straps with amazing strength." "The hands turn red, then white, and the cords of the neck stand out like steel bands."... The force of the electrical current is so powerful that the prisoner's eyeballs sometimes pop out and "rest on [his] cheeks." The prisoner often defecates, urinates and vomits blood and drool.... [Electrocution is] nothing less than the contemporary technological equivalent of burning people at the stake.
--Justice William Brennan, dissenting
opinion, Glass v. Louisiana, 1985
Even as mobs continued to mete out hideous tortures, the majority of lynchings were straightforward hangings along lines approved by the better classes, who worried about the image being conveyed to Northerners, particularly Northern investors. In his classic book Rope and Faggot, Walter White notes that the worst atrocities increased around the turn of the century (just as, incidentally, US soldiers in the Philippines were describing their mission as "nigger killing"). Of 416 lynchings of African-Americans between 1918 and 1927, White says, 62 involved "abnormal savagery." Another researcher, W. Fitzhugh Brundage, estimates that in Georgia 34 percent of lynchings involved at least some of the maniacal barbarities visited upon Sam Hose. There can be no "only" attached to 62, to 34 percent, to even one--had Hose alone been so mutilated--but, however unfathomable, these are shorts in the system. The 354, the 66 percent, testify to the superior results of "normal savagery."
Just so, as Northern agitators intensified their calls for federal laws against lynching, the Southern elite moved toward regulating the practice through law. As Douglas Colbert put it in Challenging the Challenge (quoted by Stephen Bright in a damning paper, "Discrimination, Death and Denial"), by the 1920s Southern states began to "replace lynchings with a more '[humane]...method of racial control'--the judgment and imposition of capital sentences by all-white juries." Instances of homely slaughter dropped from 315 between 1920 and 1929, to 130 between 1930 and 1939, but the fundamental objective was unchanged. As Colbert writes, "The process of 'legal lynchings' was so successful that in the 1930s, two-thirds of those executed were black." Third-degree burns from the chair began to substitute for "barbecues" from the mob, and in time General Electric would wrest from the wielders of rope and fire the Southern franchise on ritual murder.
In 1924, according to Bright, director of the valiant Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, the state of Georgia, which had ranked second in extrajudicial lynchings, embarked on its career as "the nation's primary executioner, carrying out the most executions in the twentieth century before the death penalty was declared unconstitutional in 1972"--337 blacks between 1924 and 1972, as against 75 whites. Today, 80 percent of those who walk to their death do so in the South. Their number is rising fastest in Alabama, where court-appointed attorneys spend, on average, only three days defending their clients at trial in capital cases, and which--like Texas, Virginia, Georgia and Mississippi (Number One in the old days of lynching)--has no state public defenders. Just since January, fourteen people have had their lives snuffed legally, thirteen of them in states that once provided the lynch mob's most licentious theaters.
And so, as it happens, death knows no difference, because from 1930, the point at which lynching concluded its most precipitous drop, it took the legal system sixty-nine years to kill 4,457 people. It took the lynchers eighty-six years to kill 4,743. And, as Bright notes, in the South the typical scenario for an African-American facing the death sentence continues to be trial by a white prosecutor, before a white judge, with an all-white or mostly white jury--and, in Georgia, facing the Confederate battle standard, the dominant feature of that state's flag.
Every one of Georgia's elected district attorneys--who have absolute power in determining whether the state will seek the death sentence--was white until recently; now all but one are white. In 1995 those DAs joined the state's white Attorney General in successfully arguing that even though 98.4 percent of Georgians serving life sentences for narcotics offenses were black--and even though less than 1 percent of whites eligible for a life sentence for narcotics offenses actually received it--there was no evidence that the disparity constituted racial discrimination. Their central argument? If that disparity was held discriminatory, then the same might be true of disparities in death sentencing; and if that was true, the court would be taking a "substantial step toward invalidating" the state's death penalty law--which, they said, would "paralyze the criminal justice system."