A time to die in Mississippi

Under apartheid they condemned blacks to death merely for witnessing murder. Now a young South African finds it's not so different abroad
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The Independent Online
Eight years ago, when Leslie Abrams was 14, she had a white history teacher at school called Miss Ford who would tell her and the other black children that race relations in Mississippi were not as bad as all that.

"Look at South Africa," she would say. Once Miss Ford told the class about a particularly grotesque example of apartheid injustice, a case in 1989 when a white judge condemned 14 black people to death for the murder of a black policeman. Only one of the 14 was found to have actually carried out the killing but the rest, who had been present at the scene, were pronounced equally guilty because the judge had declared that they all had murder in their hearts.

Leslie Abrams was appalled. She became an active member of the local anti-apartheid campaign in Jackson, the state capital of Mississippi, taking part in protests and boycotts of companies that did business with South Africa.

Apartheid is dead, but Ms Abrams, a student at Tougaloo University, Jackson, still has to fight for a South African cause - for Azikiwe Kambule, a young man from Soweto who is in jail in Mississippi facing the death penalty for a murder he did not commit. "I'm amazed at the similarities with the case Miss Ford told us about," said Ms Abrams, who is campaigning to mobilise students nationally as well as in Tougaloo for the fast-growing "Azi Kambule Committee for Justice".

Kambule arrived in Mississippi as an affable, articulate, courteous boy, and his family was affluent by black South African standards. His father, a lawyer with Coca-Cola in Johannesburg, had paid for him to attend South Africa's very best mixed-race schools. But then, aged 15, he moved to the US with his mother after she received a scholarship to study psychology at Jackson State University. The date of the move was January 1994, three months before Nelson Mandela was elected South Africa's first black president.

Now Kambule finds himself in a predicament not dissimilar to Mr Mandela's 30 years earlier, when he himself was in court facing the death penalty before an apartheid prosecutor determined to stretch the limits of the law as far as he could to secure a conviction.

The district attorney prosecuting the Mississippi case, John Kitchens, knows that Kambule did not shoot Pamela McGill through the back of the head. He knows that Santonio Berry did it. For he took a confession from Berry. Yet Mr Kitchens has decided that the appropriate thing to do is to send Berry to prison for life and seek the death penalty for Kambule.

THE ESSENTIAL facts of the case are public knowledge in Jackson. On the evening of 25 January 1996 Ms McGill, 31, was kidnapped at gunpoint outside her home and driven away in her car, never to be seen alive again. Two weeks later a tip led police to Kambule, then aged 17.

He confessed his role in the crime immediately. He said that on the evening in question he had been driving around Jackson with Santonio Berry, then 21. Berry, the driver, followed Ms McGill home, pointed a gun at her head, ordered her into the passenger seat and drove off, with Kambule sitting in the back. Berry stopped the car by some woods on the edge of town and led Ms McGill away. Kambule waited in the car. A few moments later Berry returned without her and the two drove off.

The day he was arrested Kambule led police to the woods where he thought Berry had shot Ms McGill but his recollection was hazy and the body was not found. Berry, who unlike Kambule had a criminal record, was arrested soon after, although he refused initially to co-operate with police. Two months later - two months when family and friends clung agonisingly to the hope that Ms McGill might still be alive - Berry led police to her decomposing body.

The murder fleetingly bridged the historically bitter divisions between Jackson's black and white communities. Barely 30 years have passed since Mississippi whites reluctantly buckled to pressure from Washington for an end to enforced racial segregation. Unenforced racial segregation persists. The ancient distrusts linger on and the memory of slavery never quite fades.

But the entire community was united in rage at the cold-blooded murder and, with only a few exceptions, by their desire to see the criminals dead. For though the two accused were black, so was the victim. The daughter of a Methodist minister and civil rights activist, Ms McGill, 31, was a social worker with "a beautiful smile", according to a woman who knew her, who was much loved in the black community.

The district attorney in Jackson, which falls under the jurisdiction of Hinds County, was more eager than anyone to see the two young men executed, as is the custom in Mississippi, by lethal injection. But he distrusted his constituency. He feared that when the moment of truth came the jurors would fail to do the right thing. "In Hinds County they have a reputation for refusing to vote for the death penalty," the district attorney, Ed Peters, said. "Certain judges in Hinds County have gotten so prejudiced against the prosecution that they won't even allow confessions to be entered as evidence."

So, in May, Mr Peters transferred the case to his colleague Mr Kitchens in neighbouring Madison County which, by contrast with Hinds, is predominantly white, where juries have a reputation for dishing out death sentences with vengeful gusto that is biblical in origin. Last month Berry and Mr Kitchens cut a deal. In exchange for confessing that he had pulled the trigger and promising to testify against Kambule in court, Berry would receive life imprisonment without parole instead of death. Kambule, who has pleaded not guilty, will go to trial for capital murder in May.

CANTON is the name of the town where the trial will take place. It is 15 miles north of Jackson, along Highway 55. As you approach the turn-off to the town, the Peace Street exit, a large billboard proclaims, "Kill some time with us in Canton." You discover upon arrival at the town's "Welcome Center" that this is an invitation to spend $6 on a ticket to visit "Historic Canton's" main tourist attraction: the set of A Time to Kill, a movie based on a John Grisham pot-boiler about race, murder and revenge.

If the director's intention in choosing Canton as his location was to convey a sense of the racial time-warp in the small towns of the Deep American South he could not have picked a better place. The square is dominated by a large, white, slave-era courthouse and surrounded on all sides by elegant, evocatively Southern constructions each with its own wooden verandah.

Down a side road, no more than 30 yards from the square, there is a barber shop. The staff are all black; the men getting their hair cuts are all black; the clients waiting for their turns, seated reading magazines, are all black. A stone's throw away, back on the square, there is another barber shop. It is identical in every respect, an uncanny mirror image down to the waiting customers seated (facing in the same direction) reading magazines, save for one detail. The clientele is white.

This would be the place where Mr Kitchens comes to get his hair cut. Or rather, we must assume it is. For he is not telling. He has stopped talking to the media. He is fed up, so his secretary explained, with the attention the Kambule case is receiving from pesky out-of-towners. Ever since the Washington-based National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty launched its "Azi Kambule Committee for Justice" worldwide on the Internet late last year, Mr Kitchens' fax machine has been spewing out hundreds of letters from outraged opponents of capital punishment from around the world, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize winner. But Mr Kitchens, who already has one death penalty conviction for a juvenile under his belt, has nothing but contempt for his correspondents. "It's just a bunch of these anti-death penalty zealots mouthing off," he complained to a local newspaper before his self-imposed media silence. "The death penalty is the only deterrent we have in this country to stop these senseless murders going on, and I'll defend it to my death."

Chokwe Lumumba, who will take on Mr Kitchens in court at the head of Kambule's defence team, takes the view that the death penalty is "backward and barbaric". An American who has taken on an African name, Mr Lumumba used to worship at the same church as Ms McGill. When she disappeared he joined in prayers at the church for her safe return. But he sees it as his duty, both as a lawyer and as a politically active black man, to overturn what he sees as the monumental injustice being done to his young client. His decision to take on the case put him in "a sensitive situation" in the black community but the tide of sentiment is turning, in large part because of the work of the campaigners like Leslie Abrams. "People are beginning to divorce their love for Pamela from the situation of this young man," Lumumba said.

BUT HOW did the young man get into this situation in the first place? Over a coffee at a diner on the outskirts of Jackson, barely a mile away from the scene of the murder, his mother, Busisiwe Chabeli Kambule, explained. "When we arrived Azi battled to adapt to the local culture. He stood out and was teased at school because he had a different accent; because he dressed differently, not in the latest teenage style; because he stood up when the teacher came in to class, always said 'Yes, sir,' 'No, sir'. It was through wanting to be cool, to fit in, that he got involved with the wrong people."

Keenly aware that back home all the years of sacrifice her generation endured have finally yielded conditions that are promising for well-educated young black men like Azi, she must now contemplate the prospect of US law doing to her son what South African law could not, now that the Mandela government has abolished the death penalty .

"The bottom line is that somebody is dead and parents are grieving - I never forget that," she said. "Nobody is saying - and I include myself - that Azi should not be punished. But what is it he needs to be punished for? We need to find a level of punishment comparable to what he did. What kind of a law says that being an observer is tantamount to pulling the trigger?"

The same kind of law that condemned 13 observers to death in South Africa eight years ago, in the old days when apartheid ruled.

The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, leading the Kambule committee for justice, may be reached by fax at 00 1 202 347 2510.