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Death row exoneree condemns racial profiling

Published on October 21, 2022

Death row exoneree condemns racial profiling

Sabrina Butler-Smith advocates for the ‘innocently incarcerated’

Sabrina Butler-Smith speaks to students
Sabrina Butler-Smith, the first Black woman exonerated from death row, speaks at Eastern's first University Hour of the semester.

There have only been 190 death row exonerations since 1973, and on Oct. 12, one of them came to Eastern for the first University Hour of the semester. Sabrina Butler-Smith, the second woman and first Black female exonerated from death row informed students about her life-changing experience and the dire consequences of issuing wrongful convictions and enforcing capital punishment on innocent lives.

The exoneree exposed guests to the negative impacts of racial profiling, institutionalized inequality and coercive law enforcement tactics, which she said needs to be “fundamentally changed” to rectify the flaws of our legal system. At 17 years old, Butler-Smith served six years in prison and two-and-a-half years on death row after being found guilty of committing second degree homicide against her infant son, Walter.

Butler-Smith“When I looked at the jury, nobody looked like me,” said Butler-Smith, “Everybody was white, so I basically knew my life was over... and I hate to say it, but I was right. That’s when I knew, this was really all about race.”

Butler-Smith was sentenced on March 13, 1990. She was also given a “death date "of July 2, 1990. However, Butler-Smith recognized biases and prejudices within the courtroom. “The decision was only based on the color of my skin,” said Bulter-Smith. “How can you take somebody’s life because of the color of their skin?”

While she was in prison, Butler-Smith noted a substantial amount of evidence arose that proved that the district attorney (DA) presiding over her case was not only corrupt, but racist. In fact, before the trial began, Butler-Smith's first DA dismissed every diverse juror that identified as a member of a minority group. After further examination, it was revealed that the district attorney made 32 legal errors to intentionally sway Butler-Smith's sentencing toward a guilty verdict.

Upon her transfer to a Mississippi state prison, Butler-Smith recalled her unbridled sense of fear. She said that one of the guards told her to look around at all the other inmates because one day they would be free, and she would have to “die alone in isolation.”

She said she felt as if she were perpetually preparing for the end of her life, because she was never told that the Mississippi government needed to exhaust all their state-remedies before carrying out a death sentence.

“By far, one of the scariest moments of my life was my death day,” she said, “I paced the floors, and I listened for every chain and sound, because I actually thought that was the day I was going to die. Butler-Smith began to choke up as tears welled up in her eyes. “Every day after that, I would wake up and think it was my last day on Earth.”

In August 1994, the original district attorney’s decision to enforce the death penalty was overturned and Butler-Smith was acquitted of all previous charges. The once-unrightfully incarcerated female says she is now determined to serve as a human rights and life activist. She strives to mitigate the number of unjust convictions while simultaneously expunging the judicial/prison system’s use of the death penalty.

“I didn’t win because of the system; I won in spite of the system,” said Bulter-Smith. “My son’s health records and incomplete autopsy report were at the hospital the whole entire time and the district attorney knew that. He just wanted to make a name for himself. He simply used me and turned me into an example because I was poor, Black and young. That’s all it was, simple as that.”

The autopsy reports revealed that Butler-Smith's baby likely passed away due to several underlying lung, heart, stomach and bowel complications. Unfortunately, Butler-Smith, 17 years old at the time, was not aware of her son’s medical ailments prior to his passing. Despite the DA’s initial verdict, which indicated that the child suffered from neglect and improper CPR, the second trial proved that these were not the true causes for Walter’s death.

The district attorney once again attempted to withhold evidence and strike Black jurors from the retrial, yet his attempts were unsuccessful. “I was judged by half a group of people that looked like me, and another half that didn’t. That’s how it should’ve been in the first place... and guess what? After all that time being petrified in prison, the jury determined that I was innocent.”

Currently, Butler-Smith is focused on instituting changes within federal and local governments by serving as a member of the Board of Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and Life After Innocence.

She is also a constituent of “Witness to Innocence,” a non-profit organization that consists of death row exonerees who educate audiences about the death penalty, wrongful convictions, judiciary fowl play and systemic racism. They also help innocently incarcerated people to re-assimilate into society.

“It may not happen in my lifetime, but it’s got to happen soon,” said Butler-Smith. “We must get rid of the death penalty. I promise we can change the system, but it starts with all of you!”

Written by Jack Jones