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Stereotypes killed Robert Butts

By John Hagedorn | Gangs and The Media

The State of Georgia executed Robert Butts Friday night, May 4, 2018 at 9:58 EDT. But the real killer was a lethal injection of stereotypes by prosecutors, callously upheld by the courts. I have a long history with Robert and his co-defendant, Marion Wilson. Since 2005 I’ve testified in various hearings about the pernicious use of gang stereotypes which frightened their juries into returning a death sentence. For Robert, my best efforts failed.

No case in my twenty three years of expert witness work has been characterized by so many inflammatory and false claims about gangs as this one.

I’ve previously written about this case. Prosecutors went to extreme lengths to label a robbery gone wrong as a gang-related crime. Baldwin County Sheriff Howard Sils had testified the absurd claim that since the bullet type was “F shot” surely the”F” must have stood for Folks? Read that again. “F for Folks.” But that was not the worst gang “evidence” at the trial.

mugshot of Robert Butts
Robert Butts – Image credit: Georgia Department of Corrections

District Attorney Fred Bright put Milledgeville Deputy Ricky Horn on the stand. Horn was qualified as an “expert” on gangs despite his sworn testimony that most of what he knows about gang he learned from “TV and the movies.” Horn testified to an all white jury in a town that he admitted was “very religious” that “FOLKS” stood for…wait for it….Followers of Our Lord King Satan. So Mr. Butts was a young black male gang member, convicted of murder and a devil worshipper as well. Death qualified juries, Fleury-Steiner finds, can justify sentencing someone to death if they can dehumanize the defendant, to see him as “the other,” as something less than human. Devil worshippers by any measure surely qualify as “them.”

I testified in earlier hearings that I had even consulted with Chicago Police Gang Squad officers and none of us had ever heard such ridiculous meaning for “Folks.” That term, of course, is the name of a now defunct coalition of Chicago gangs, the opposite of “People.” As in, “your people, my folks.”

But frightening the jury with the specter of devil worshipping black gang members in Baldwin County was only the fuse to set off a time bomb in DA Fred Bright’s closing argument in Robert’s trial. The jury was told that Baldwin County was being held hostage by the “carnage” of a violent crime wave by vicious gangs. Interviews with jurors uncovered that the jury was unaware of such a threat to their lives and the allegations of a gang crime wave was among the most decisive arguments in the jury arriving at a sentence of death. They were even sequestered, it was thought, to protect them against gang retaliation.

Except the crime wave was wholly imaginary. In previous testimony I had pointed out that the homicide rate in Baldwin County, where Milledgeville is located, actually declined in the 1990s after gangs had formed. While in large cities in the US gang homicides surged, Baldwin County had 33 homicides in the 1980s but one third fewer, 26, in the decade of the 1990s. There was also no change in the number of assaults between the two decades. The formation of gangs was related to a decline in violence, not an increase.

When we form stereotypes, or frames, unless we think about it, we shape any new facts to fit the frame. Thus being told of a devil-worshipping gang and a murder case, and given unrebutted dangerous stereotypes of gangs, the jury accepted the “fake news” that Milledgeville was in the midst of the “carnage” of a gang crime wave — despite the fact that no such crime wave existed. Frames trump facts. Stereotypes can kill. And do. And did.

No Crime Wave in the 1990s in Baldwin County

Juries in murder cases are especially vulnerable to relying on stereotypes. Terror Management Theory explains when we are confronted with images or evidence of our own mortality we tend to unconsciously rely on familiar folk wisdom, what Kahneman calls “thinking fast” rather than utilizing critical thought. Robert’s jury was frightened to death, or rather frightened into rendering a death sentence.

Gang allegations hover like a phantom over a jury’s subconscious or in this case the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole, who briefly considered commuting his death sentence. Like any demon, gang stereotypes need to be continually cast out until they are chased away. Prosecutors are advised to always use gang allegations when available because the very mention of gangs is effective. Such evidence is “prejudicial” and “that’s the point!” exclaims a prosecutors’ manual. Think about that word: “pre-judicial.” This means prosecutors rely on pre-existing stereotypes, not evidence, to get a conviction or harsh sentence. This is no less than a threat to basic principles of justice. This is why I do this work.

I think of Donovan Parks, the innocent murdered victim in this case. I don’t blame his father for saying Robert’s execution was “good news.” Our criminal justice system is not about fairness, deterrence, and by no means rehabilitation. It is too often a system of revenge, of “just deserts,” lashing out at those who offend the sacred standards of an imagined community. Juries don’t need to think what is right or just. They are urged by prosecutors to act on their rawest feelings. They dehumanize, or in this case, demonize the offender so they can more easily allow him to be killed.

I’ve realized the jury didn’t sentence a human being, “Robert Butts,” to death. They sentenced a caricature of a gang member, a dehumanized monster of the jury’s darkest nightmares. The DA could have recalled the elements of malice murder and made his case for death to the jury without recourse to any mention of gangs. But instead he chose to visit the nether world of demonization where an offender is so inalterably evil there is literally no choice to the jury but to sentence him to death.

As Robert’s execution date arrived May 4th I unconsciously watched the clock: 10:02am….1:47pm …..5:32pm. Then the US Supreme Court’s brief stay of execution followed immediately by a terse text that the court would not consider his case. Then 9:58pm. I thought back over the phone conversations I had over the years with this bright, creative man, Robert E. Butts. His deep feelings of responsibility for his family and remorse for his actions. His playful FaceBook messages to me under a pseudonym, daring me to guess who he was. His calls to me from his “cell phone.” His joy.

Robert wrote this stanza in a book he published of his poems and drawings from Death Row. The poem is entitled “Tomorrow.”

Never will I stop seeking you,
From this I’ll never sway…
I know that we’ll meet eventually,
That tomorrow will come one day…

Until it won’t. Good bye Robert. Your death by stereotype made me cry…made me angry…made me shiver to my very soul. But it also motivates me to use my experience and abilities to confront the unjust and unjustifiable use of gang stereotypes. I won’t forget you.

Reprinted with permission.

John Hagedorn has been doing research on gangs for more than 35 years.  He has been active in social movements his entire adult life and taught at the University of Illinois-Chicago for 22 years. His work has increasingly become focused on processes of injustice in the court, particularly the power of stereotypes. He is married with five adult children and a beloved dog, Pickles. He is an avid bicyclist.

Berreby, David. 2005. Us and Them: The Science of identity. Chicago: University of Chicago.
Butts, Robert E. 2013. A Portrait of My Journey: Memoirs from Death Row. Lexington, KY.
Devine, Dennis J. 2012. Jury Decision Making; The State of the Science. New York and London: New York University Press.
Fleury-Steiner, Benjamin. 2004. Jurors’ stories of death : how America’s death penalty invests in inequality. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Greenberg, Jeff, Sheldon Solomon, Mitchell Veeder, Tom Pyszczynski, Abram Rosenblatt, Shari Kirkland, Deborah Lyon. 1990. “Evidence for Terror Management Theory II: The Effects of Mortality Salience on Reactions to Those Who Threaten or Bolster the Cultural Worldview.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 58(2):308-18.
Jackson, Alan. 2004. “Prosecuting gang cases: What local prosecutors need to know.” Alexandria, VA: American Prosecutors Research Institute.
Kahneman, Daniel. 2011. Think Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.


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