A nation inured to wanton murder was nevertheless shocked by this one: In November 2010, a group of four young men milling about as a party ended attacked another teen, randomly picking him as the victim of their vicious assault. Bobby Tillman, 18, did nothing to provoke his assailants to knock him to the ground and kick and stomp him to death.
The crime occurred outside a suburban Atlanta home after parents called a halt to a teen party that had gotten out of control. This was no beating by members of a rival gang, no attack set off by longstanding grudges or old misunderstandings. There was no evidence that the mob who set upon Tillman knew anything about him.
Instead, the ringleader was apparently upset when he was struck by a girl involved in a fight with someone else. He vowed to attack the next young man that he saw. When he and his buddies were done, one life was snuffed out and four others were likely ruined.
There is no silver-lining here, no happy ending: Monique Rivarde, Tillman’s mother, will receive justice but not closure. She will continue to grieve her unfathomable loss.
Nevertheless, there is buried in this depressing story about a murder involving black adolescents a reminder of racial progress, a subtle hint about changing times, an update on the story of a biased criminal justice system. Douglas County District Attorney David McDade sought the death penalty for one of the assailants, a move that was by no means an obvious one. In doing so, he helped to upgrade the worth of young black men — so often discounted by a judicial system that does not weigh lives equally.
In a trial just concluded, the jury deadlocked on the issue of punishment after finding Tracen Franklin guilty in Tillman’s death. (One young man earlier pled guilty; two others face trial.) That means that Franklin will not face execution. That’s just as well.
I am no fan of the death penalty. Even at its best, it places the state in the position of taking a life for a life, an “eye for an eye” — a dubious moral proposition. At its worst, capital punishment is capricious and unfair.
The number of innocent people exonerated after years on death row is staggering — 143 people since 1973, according to the Death Row Innocence Project. Those numbers beg the question: How many of the wrongly convicted have been executed? Given the hazards of a system rife with human weaknesses, capital punishment should be retired.
But if the legal mechanisms of the various states insist on using it — and most still do — then it ought to used fairly. It should be brought to bear against those who kill black and brown Americans as it is against those who kill white ones. McDade, a zealot who prosecutes aggressively, at least decided to use his powers to seek capital punishment for one of the killers of a black victim.
The history of capital punishment shows a double standard. Several studies have proved that the killers of white victims are executed far more often than the killers of black victims. In a famous study, University of Iowa law professor David Baldus found that during the 1980s, prosecutors in Georgia sought the death penalty for 70 percent of black defendants with white victims, but for only 15 percent of white defendants with black victims.
Nothing that happens in a courtroom will resurrect Tillman, a slightly built college student whose mother says had hoped to become a sports agent. His life was stolen in a few seconds of frenzied and savage violence that cannot be undone.
But at least he has not been victimized by a criminal justice system that discounted him as a lesser victim. Perhaps his mother can take a small bit of comfort in that.
Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.