Kansas defense attorney labels death penalty ‘peak horror’ of racism in justice system

Barbarism of 10 men on state’s death row undercuts movement to repeal capital punishment

The Kansas Supreme Court unanimously reversed a lower court ruling that found a 2013 state worker compensation law to be unconstitutional. Members of the court, seated from left: Justice Eric Rosen; Chief Justice Marla Luckert; Justice Dan Biles. Standing from left: Justice Caleb Stegall; Justice Evelyn Wilson; Justice K.J. Wall. Not pictured: Melissa Taylor Standridge, who was recently appointed to the court. (Kansas Supreme Court/Kansas Reflector)
The Kansas Supreme Court unanimously reversed a lower court ruling that found a 2013 state worker compensation law to be unconstitutional. Members of the court, seated from left: Justice Eric Rosen; Chief Justice Marla Luckert; Justice Dan Biles. Standing from left: Justice Caleb Stegall; Justice Evelyn Wilson; Justice K.J. Wall. Not pictured: Melissa Taylor Standridge, who was recently appointed to the court. (Kansas Supreme Court/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Years working capital murder cases and appeals of the wrongfully convicted led criminal defense lawyer Cheryl Pilate to conclude the government’s willingness to order execution of men and women stood as a potent expression of racism’s grasp on the justice system.

From a front-row seat of repetitious legal dramas, Pilate encountered evidence of a system willing to prey upon minorities and encouraged by corrupted law enforcement officers and prosecutors. She said a broad coalition of the willing, all the way down to corrections officers who volunteer to serve on prison execution units, reinforced this societal failure.

She’s convinced the country’s legal system has been too distorted by centuries of injustice to fairly judge who deserved to live or die.

“The death penalty — it’s like the peak horror,” Pilate said. “It is the reflection of pervasive racism throughout the justice system. And, the justice system is a reflection of society.”

On the latest episode of the Kansas Reflector podcast, Pilate and Beatrice Swoopes, a retired lobbyist for Catholic causes, and Mark McCormick, a staffer with ACLU of Kansas, offered personal and professional arguments in opposition to capital punishment. They shared their thoughts at a conference sponsored by the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty.

Cheryl Pilate
Cheryl Pilate

Their views were drawn from direct experience with racism and framed by a belief state-sponsored executions couldn’t be defended. In their minds, ending the death penalty would bring the nation a refreshing injection of dignity. Their rejection of capital punishment cannot be separated from the tragedy of America’s long history of Black slavery and the persistence of white supremacy.

Kansas reinstituted a trial court’s option to impose a death sentence in 1994, but no one has been executed in the state since 1965. So far, 10 men in custody of the Kansas Department of Corrections have been ordered to die by legal injection. Seven are white. All are convicted killers. As inevitable appeals claw through the system, they spend most of each day in solitary confinement.

Half of U.S. states have adopted laws forbidding capital punishment or placed a moratorium on executions. In Kansas, however, tough-on-crime politics holds sway. Whenever the idea of repeal surfaces at the Capitol, the testimony from proponents points to millions of dollars in extra costs required of capital cases. They raise moral and religious objections. There’s no way to get around cruelty of strapping someone down and intentionally ending a life, they say. And there are questions about mistakes and corruption as the list of exonerees grows.

Opponents of repeal in Kansas have an easier task. Those favoring status quo can sway opinion by simply mentioning Reginald and Jonathan Carr, John Robinson, James Kahler, Kyle Flack, Frazier Cross, Justin Thurber, Scott Cheever, Sidney Gleason and Gary Kleypas. Collectively, these men condemned to death by Kansas have been found guilty of killing two dozen people.

The Carr brothers shared a sadist’s zeal by murdering five in Wichita. Robinson was convicted of killing three, but the serial killer confessed to five more. Kahler massacred four female members of his family in Burlingame. Flack shot three adults and a toddler. Gleason killed two. Cheever gunned down Greenwood County’s sheriff. Cross, a white supremacist, murdered three at a Jewish retirement center. Kleypas was sentenced to life in prison for a Missouri murder, but was released to Kansas where he killed a Pittsburg State University student. Thurber murdered a pre-pharmacy student on Cowley Community College’s dance team.

At the federal level, the administration of President Donald Trump is engaged in a campaign to speed execution of death-row inmates before surrendering the White House to President-elect Joe Biden on Jan. 20.


‘I was livid’

Beatrice Swoopes was born in 1946 and lived in a segregated two-block street in Kansas City, Kansas. She was 9 when Rosa Parks refused to surrender her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama. She attended a segregated Catholic grade school until her father thought it was time for her to help integrate a nearby all-white elementary. She went to Bishop Ward High School, where there were three Blacks in her freshman class.

“These were the ‘60s, so as a member of the Junior NAACP, I participated in the sit-ins to desegregate the lunch counters at Kresge’s in Kansas City, Missouri and followed intently the activities of Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and other civil rights activists of the time. These were experiences that definitely made me feel my blackness,” Swoopes said.

She said the idea that Blacks were lesser-than people regrettably carried through the culture to her own children. In 1987, Swoopes said, her eldest son went into a Hallmark Cards store in Lenexa, Kansas. A sophomore at Rockhurst College, he was detained by police because the white store clerk, uneasy around Blacks, had someone call 911 to report a potential robbery. He was released without apology, she said, and the sting of indignity remains.

Beatrice Swoopes

“I was livid,” Swoopes said. “As you can see … I still have emotions behind that incident.”

Swoopes, who worked 46 years for the Kansas Catholic Conference, said racism had an influence on who faced prosecution for capital offenses, who was sentenced to die and who was executed in the United States.

The Death Penalty Information Center reported that since U.S. executions resumed in 1977 there had been 308 Black defendants put to death for murders involving at least one white victim. In this same period, 34 white defendants were executed when at least one Black victim was killed.

In Swoopes’ mind, this disparity represented a modern form of lynching. It was as if capital punishment was on the books in Kansas as a Confederate monument to injustice.

“Bias is engrained in our society,” she said. “The superiority of one race over the other permeates our DNA. It is important to acknowledge that our nation from its very beginning was created with laws and policy that intentionally — intentionally — subjugated minorities. This has resulted in institutionalized systematic racism that exists today in our justice system, health system, educational system, housing system — all systems.”

Swoopes said correlation between the death penalty and racial inequality wasn’t accepted by millions of Americans, but to her it was starkly clear. On this subject, she is convinced one plus one does equal two.

“The death penalty screams Black lives don’t matter,” she said.


Wrong on its face

Mark McCormick has four sons, and two have licenses to drive. For their father, it’s an anxiety-producing experience when they get behind the wheel.

“It’s very difficult to breathe until they get back home, even if they’re just going to McDonald’s or something,” he said.

When he was a student at Wichita North High School, McCormick learned from Jo Brown, the first woman of color elected to the Wichita school board, that white residents of Wichita weren’t always interested in swimming in water touched by Blacks. Brown said the result was Black students in high school were allowed to swim only on Fridays.

“After the Black students swam, the pool was drained. The pool was cleaned and refilled because they didn’t want Black kids and white kids swimming in the same water,” McCormick said.

McCormick works in Kansas City as a communications strategist with the ACLU. He’s a former journalist at the Wichita Eagle and executive director of the Kansas African American Museum.

Mark McCormick

McCormick was at the Eagle in 2008 when Barack Obama was elected president. The day after, he received about 40 phone messages. McCormick says the first was from the manager of a Wichita restaurant with angry customers insisting they not be served by Blacks.

“There were customers coming through the drive thru, and pardon the language, but all of the people coming through the drive thru said, ‘I don’t want any (expletive) touching my money or my food.”

McCormick said racial history of the United States provided sufficient evidence the citizenry must forfeit their right to invoke the death penalty. How can a nation that scarcely recognizes Black life, he said, consider itself justified in taking it?

“That’s not a bulletin to anyone in this meeting,” he said. “The question is not whether we have the right to kill people. It’s not whether someone deserves to die. But the question is rather whether we have the right to kill people, and I don’t think we do.”

McCormick said the 1991 beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles Police Department officers offered lessons for the future. That police brutality was filmed by a guy on a nearby balcony and footage given to a news station. It became a global sensation.

It has become increasingly difficult for law enforcement to blanketly deny misconduct because people walk around with cameras in their pocket, he said. Such imagery has power to change hearts and minds, he said, in the way film was used in 1965 to prevent the nation from turning a deaf ear to the Bloody Sunday beating of marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

Aside from repeal of capital punishment, McCormick said, Kansas law could to be amended to improve public access to records of police use of force. He also said it was time the public had more influence on who was employed at law enforcement agencies.


‘Rarely punished’

Pilate, the defense attorney, admitted it was dispiriting for some people to hear it wasn’t rare for Black women to be exploited sexually by law enforcement officers in Kansas City, Kansas. She said it was likewise upsetting the death penalty, and its disproportionate application to people of color, was based on the same notions of privilege, entitlement and abuse of power.

“The death penalty is the officially sanctioned legalized expression of the kind of violence against Black folks that goes on every day. That is part of a vast system of illegal, but rarely punished, acts often committed by police against Black folks,” she said.

Pilate has been working on a civil rights lawsuit regarding the wrongful conviction of Lamonte McIntyre, who was found guilty in Wyandotte County for a double homicide. McIntyre was with relatives in another part of the city when the shooting occurred April 15, 1994. He didn’t know the victims. No physical evidence linked him to the crime. Prosecutors offered no motive. No weapon linked McIntyre to shotgun slayings.

Pilate said KCK cops needed someone to take the fall and they settled on a 17-year-old Black kid they assumed would never secure resources to effectively prove them wrong. McIntyre received two life sentences.

In 2017, work by Pilate and the Midwest Innocence Project led to overturning of McIntrye’s convictions based on evidence of prosecutorial misconduct.

“We’re seeking civil justice for 23 years lost to prison in a case which frankly was a frame up,” she said. “It was an intentional framing of my client who did not know the victims, knew nothing about the crime, was nowhere near the scene. It was part of a series of violent crimes committed by a drug gang. And, there were certain cops who were very enmeshed with some of these gangs.”

Pilate said people of color in Wyandotte County understood it was not safe to challenge a justice system they’d been taught had no patience for their interests.

“The Black folks understand they’re not supposed to talk about this. That they will suffer repercussion or harm if they talk about what happened,” Pilate said. “Basically, we have an inner-city dehumanized population that is treated as if they’re there to provide various means to a living, both legal and illegal, for a dominant white population.”

Capital punishment should be recognized as the most extreme expression of violence perpetrated by the dominant culture in the United States, Pilate said. She said the system built up to perpetuate capital punishment was organized so individuals didn’t have to feel responsible for a death sentence. She said it cleverly diluted the burden so no one would carry the label of, “I am the person responsible for this.”

Pilate also said she may never shake memories of corrections officers dragging a condemned man away and the sound of the prison telephone dropping to the floor in the middle a conversation with his lawyers. She said that death-row inmate wasn’t permitted the humanity of saying goodbye.

“A lot of this is so ugly. It’s just so ugly. Sometimes it’s really hard to find a way to talk about it that is not upsetting to people. I’ve been working on this stuff for a long time, so I’m going for the frank approach right now. I’m just saying what I see. I don’t know the roots of all of this, but what I do know is that unless we start talking more openly and honestly about it, that we’re not going to get very far.”