A week before the crowds arrived in Montgomery for the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a monument to victims of lynching in the United States, Alabama prepared to kill 83-year-old Walter Moody. From his death watch cell at Holman prison, Moody called his attorney the night before he was to die. "He said, 'An EMT was just in here and he seemed concerned about my veins,'" said Spencer Hahn, a lawyer with the Alabama Middle District Federal Defender.

There were good reasons to worry. Moody would be the oldest person executed in the so-called modern death penalty era — and problems finding viable veins had led to an unprecedented disaster at Holman a few months before. For more than two hours, prison personnel had tried and failed to place intravenous lines into the body of 61-year-old Doyle Lee Hamm. The execution was finally called off close to midnight, leaving Hamm bloody and traumatized. His lawyers called it torture. But the state was dismissive. "I wouldn't necessarily characterize what we had tonight as a problem," Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeffrey Dunn told the press.

(Original Caption) Bombing suspect Walter Leroy Moody Jr. is shackled and under tight security, as he is led into the Federal Courthouse for the 2nd day in a row, during a bond hearing on charges stemming from a 1972 bombing incident.

Walter Leroy Moody Jr. is led into the Federal Courthouse during a bond hearing in July 1990 on charges stemming from a 1972 bombing incident.

Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Hahn filed a last-minute motion on Moody's behalf, to no avail. On April 19, he and his boss, Christine Freeman, made the trip down I-65 to Holman to witness the execution. Moody was the seventh client Freeman has seen put to death. It began like all the others. "They open the curtains, the prisoner is there on the gurney," she said. Moody's arms were extended, forming the eerie crucifix shape. There was just one problem. Their client appeared to be sound asleep.

"I thought he was dead," Hahn recalls. "He was breathing so shallowly." But officials carried on as if everything were normal. The warden entered the execution chamber with a microphone. Speakers were flipped on for witnesses to hear as she read the execution order aloud. Then, absurdly, the warden asked the unconscious Moody if he had any last words. "She holds the microphone up and then she just quickly pulls it back and turns and walks away," Freeman said.

"I think he was given a drug," Freeman said. "I don't know what the drug was, I don't know if he asked for it or not." To execute a man potentially unaware that he was about to die would be a serious violation of his rights. In fact, just weeks earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court had blocked another Alabama execution amid concerns over the condemned man's dementia. But Dunn denied anything was amiss. Moody was pronounced dead at 8:42 p.m.

The state's nothing-to-see-here posture was a "façade," Freeman said, but it was one she has come to expect. In December 2016, Alabama executed her client Ronald Bert Smith, who "heaved and coughed and clenched his left fist," as one media witness reported. "It was just awful to see," Freeman recalled. Rather than investigate what went wrong, Alabama officials "launched a campaign of obfuscation and misinformation about what happened to him," Freeman's former colleague, an outspoken critic of Alabama's lethal injection regime, wrote. "They just say whatever needs to be said, in order to ensure that they get to continue to do what they do," Hahn said.

This is not just true in Alabama. I was at the prison known as the Cummins Unit the night Arkansas killed Kenneth Williams in April 2017 — the last in a series of controversial executions using a new lethal injection protocol. Defense attorneys had warned for months that things were likely to go wrong, but the state refused to listen. Press witnesses returned to the media room with disturbing reports, describing how Williams convulsed and struggled for breath before he died. But a governor's spokesperson declared that everything had gone fine. In the year since the execution, I could not shake the brazen denial; the chilling directive that witnesses ignore what they saw; that it had not really happened that way.

"This system pushes everyone into a place of unreality," said Freeman. It reminded me of the words of an anti-lynching activist I read before arriving in Alabama. "A lynching makes a lot of otherwise good people go blind or lose their memories."

Part of a statue depicting chained people is on display at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a new memorial to honor thousands of people killed in racist lynchings, Sunday, April 22, 2018, in Montgomery, Ala. The national memorial aims to teach about America's past in hope of promoting understanding and healing. It's scheduled to open on Thursday. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Part of a statue depicting chained people at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice on April 22, 2018, in Montgomery, Ala.

Photo: Brynn Anderson/AP

"What Led to This Point?"

The office of Alabama's Middle District Federal Defender sits on a quiet block in Montgomery, just a mile up the road from the Equal Justice Initiative. The famed legal nonprofit was founded in 1989 by renowned capital defense attorney Bryan Stevenson, who has attended his own share of executions. Stevenson has made it his life's work to transform how Americans think about our criminal justice system, by tracing its origins and making them visible. Outside its downtown headquarters on Commerce Street, a historical marker stands where "enslaved people were marched in chains up the street from the riverfront and railroad station to the slave auction site or to local slave depots." In a state that officially celebrates Martin Luther King's birthday alongside that of Robert E. Lee, it is part of a broader effort, EJI explains, to "reshape the cultural landscape" to "more truthfully and accurately reflect our history."

On April 26, EJI opened two new monuments in Montgomery: the National Memorial for Peace and Justice — commemorating more than 4,400 victims of lynching in the United States between 1877 and 1950 — and the Legacy Museum, which traces the evolution from "mass enslavement to mass incarceration." A two-day Peace and Justice Summit at the convention center brought musicians, food trucks, and speakers like Michelle Alexander, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, and film director Ava DuVernay. The lynching memorial commanded the most attention. The long pavilion stands on a hill overlooking Montgomery, where Confederate monuments sit close to historic sites of the civil rights movement. On opening day, visitors and volunteers crowded the entrance. Inside, a wide path opened and turned toward the memorial, past a sculptor's arresting portrayal of anguished men and women in shackles. Along a wall, large signs narrated the end of the slave trade to the collapse of Reconstruction and the emergence of "racial terror lynchings" as a means of enforcing white control of the South.

Entering the memorial at the top of the hill, steel rectangular columns stood at eye level, suspended from metal poles. The coppery orange pillars looked weathered and scarred, each one engraved with the names of counties and the lynching victims who died there. Some had only first or last names, others read "Unknown." Walking further into the memorial, the floor began to curve and descend and the columns got higher and higher, until eventually the rows hung in an overwhelming canopy.

MONTGOMERY, AL - APRIL 26: Ed Sykes, 77, visits the National Memorial For Peace And Justice on April 26, 2018 in Montgomery, Alabama. Sykes, who has family in Mississippi, was distraught when he discovered his last name in the memorial, three months after finding it on separate memorial in Clay County, Mississippi. "This is the second time I've seen the name Sykes as a hanging victim. What can I say?" Sykes, who now lives in San Francisco, plans to investigate the lynching of a possible relative at the Equal Justice Initiative headquarters in Montgomery before returning to California. The memorial is dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people and those terrorized by lynching and Jim Crow segregation in America. Conceived by the Equal Justice Initiative, the physical environment is intended to foster reflection on America's history of racial inequality. (Photo by Bob Miller/Getty Images)

Ed Sykes, 77, visits the National Memorial for Peace and Justice on April 26, 2018.

Photo: Bob Miller/Getty Images

There were some 840 pillars total. Visitors quietly sought out those associated with their family roots, taking pictures with their phones. The names were largely unfamiliar to me — generations of men, women, and children buried in revisionist history. But many locations were all too familiar. One of the first I saw was Lincoln County, Arkansas, where Kenneth Williams was executed. Six lynchings were inscribed on its surface.

Near the entrance, I found Butts County, Georgia, the site of only two recorded lynchings — a small number for Georgia. But Butts County is home to the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison in Jackson. Troy Davis was killed there in 2011. I was outside the prison five years later, when a man named Kenneth Fults was executed despite the racist remarks of a juror, who said, "I don't know if he ever killed anybody, but that nigger got just what should have happened."

Further down, I found Sunflower County, Mississippi, the site of 12 recorded lynchings, and where I once toured the execution chamber at Parchman Farm. Near the exit was West Feliciana Parish, most famous for the Louisiana State Penitentiary — a former slave plantation known as Angola, the country from which its inhabitants were stolen. Men still work the fields at Angola. Most are black, and the majority are serving life sentences. When I visited years ago, members of the Angola Three had been locked in solitary confinement for nearly four decades.


A column, center, at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice featuring Sunflower County, Miss.

Photo: Liliana Segura/The Intercept

Of the seven lynchings recorded on the pillar for West Feliciana Parish, the last took place in 1933 — the decade in which lynchings began to decline and legal executions rose throughout the South. In 1947, the U.S. Supreme Court considered the case of a black teenager named Willie Francis, who had gone to Louisiana's electric chair but, gruesomely, survived. In a decision still cited today, the majority found that attempting to kill him again would not violate the Eighth Amendment. "Accidents happen," the ruling read, "for which no man is to blame."

Lynchings were once carried out "at the hands of persons unknown," in the official language of the state. Though the identities of the perpetrators were often an open secret, newspapers "absolved their local leaders of responsibility," Sherrilyn Ifill writes in "On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-First Century." Aided by a compliant press, a "consensus story" formed: "The lynchers were 'outsiders' who could not be recognized."

An unidentified attendant checks Louisiana's portable electric chair in the parish jail at St. Martinville, Louisiana on May 9, 1947, before Willie Francis, 18-year-old African American, was electrocuted for a robbery slaying. A year ago they tried to electrocute Willie, but the chair wouldn't work. On his second trip to the chair, he was pronounced dead five minutes after the switch was thrown. (AP Photo/Bill Allen)
(Original Caption) Death Chair "Tickled a Little" St. Martinville, La.: Seated on his bunk in the death cell of Iberia Parish Courthouse, convinced that "The Lord is Still with Me," is Willie Francis, 17-year-old Negro who won a million-to-one chance of a reprieve from death when the electric chair failed to kill him, or even hurt him, at his scheduled execution on May 3. Sentenced to die for the murder of a St. Martinville druggist a year ago, Francis was strapped in the chair. The current was applied. The doomed man squirmed and jumped. But when the current was shut off, he was unharmed. "It tickled a little," he said. The state will try again to carry out the execution on Thursday May 9th.

Left/Top: An unidentified attendant checks Louisiana's portable electric chair in the parish jail at St. Martinville, La., on May 9, 1947, before successfully electrocuting Willie Francis. The previous year, the chair wouldn't work. Right/Bottom: Willie Francis seated on his bunk in the death cell of Iberia Parish Courthouse.Photo left: Bill Allen/AP. Photo right: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images.

Stevenson calls the death penalty the "stepchild of lynching." At the Legacy Museum, the parallel is starkly drawn. Yet historians who have probed the precise connection have been hamstrung by an absence of reliable data. The federal government never bothered to count the thousands of lynchings that terrorized black communities across the country; and it did not start keeping track of legal executions until 1930. That there is any historical record of lynchings is thanks to institutions like the Tuskegee Institute and activists like Ida B. Wells. A database of early executions exists because of the work of Watt Espy, an Alabama researcher who died in 2009. Nevertheless, the link is unmistakable in the South, where both lynchings and early executions were lawless forms of racial control. Public executions looked a lot like lynchings — and the justifications for both were often the same.

But even as lynchings persisted in the early 20th century, legal executions began to evolve, "from widely attended public hangings to tightly controlled official events held under high security in state prisons," as Memphis historian Margaret Vandiver writes in "Lethal Punishment: Lynchings and Legal Executions in the South." Today, the legal framework governing the death penalty is complex and impenetrable — and executions are more secretive and sanitized than ever. This long evolution can make the link between lynching and the death penalty feel tenuous and disorienting in 2018. Last year in Charleston, South Carolina, I watched as Dylann Roof was sentenced to die for the slaughter of nine black people, under the authority of a black president.

I came to Alabama to bridge another disconnect, one that spans my own lifetime: the distinction we created between the "modern death penalty era" and everything that came before. In between are the four years separating two landmark Supreme Court rulings: Furman v. Georgia, which struck down the death penalty in 1972, and Gregg v. Georgia, which upheld it in 1976. Gregg ushered in an age of state-sanctioned killing that would transform executions to look modern and humane, while closing a chapter in death penalty history that is now rarely invoked. For all the data we have amassed showing discrimination in capital punishment, its roots in racial terror have been severed from our collective memory. Today, even abolitionists describe the death penalty as "broken," as if there were ever a time when it was carried out fairly, as a legitimate expression of society's outrage.

For Freeman, who drove past the site of the pavilion almost every day as it was under construction, walking through the memorial was a jolt of perspective. "When you're caught up in the minutia of your case, you're not saying, 'How did we get to this point?'" she said. EJI reminds us that "we created a bunch of laws to keep people in prison so that they could provide labor. And then the rest of us started to assume those laws made sense. And then we demonized certain portions of our citizens, and people started to think that made sense. I think it's really critical that we always ask why," she said. "Why are we here? What led to this point?"

Historic homes along the Walking Tour on Randolph Street. (Photo by: Jeffrey Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images)

Historic homes in Eufaula, Ala.

Photo: Jeffrey Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images

A New Order of Things

Eufaula, Alabama, sits on a riverbank border with Georgia, some 85 miles southeast of Montgomery. On the cusp of Alabama's Black Belt, the city was once prosperous from cotton plantations and a railroad built by slave labor, later becoming the "fugitive seat of the Government of Alabama," toward the end of the Civil War. Today, the Eufaula River is famous for big mouth bass, and its historic district is lauded in travel magazines. A Confederate monument overlooks a traffic circle downtown, where every spring the "Eufaula pilgrimage" features Southern belles in hoop skirts welcoming visitors to tour antebellum architecture.

Like other parts of the South after emancipation, Eufaula was the site of violent measures to roll back the gains made during Reconstruction. On the morning of Alabama's critical 1874 elections, members of the White League carried out a notorious slaughter of black Republicans in Eufaula, driving scores of would-be voters from the polls. The mob later broke into a polling place north of town, fatally shooting the teenage son of a white Republican judge. Today, on U.S. Highway 82, a historical marker commemorates the "Election Riot of 1874," which "marked the end of the Republican domination in Barbour County." No black victims are mentioned.

In a sunny history of Eufaula published the following year, a local writer celebrated a renewed sense of optimism — "a new order of things is fully inaugurated," he wrote. Just as the Black Codes did after the Civil War, new laws re-criminalized black people; in "Black Prisoners and Their World: Alabama, 1865-1900," historian Mary Ellen Curtin describes how these years "established a solid practice of whites turning to the courts to prosecute African Americans for purposes of social control." Between 1874 and 1877, she writes, the black incarcerated population of the state tripled. Convict leasing became the law of the land.

At the same time, lynchings were on the rise. In 1881, a black man in Eufaula was chased across the border to Georgia and killed by a mob for allegedly assaulting a white girl. "There was a rumor among the blacks that the wrong man had been hung," the Eufaula Times and News reported, "but the writer, as well as every one who has taken the pains to learn the facts, knows that such was not the case." Like many newspapers in the South and North alike, the Times and News wrote approvingly of lynchings, particularly to punish "outrageous assaults upon white women," as the Eufaula newspaper wrote in 1885. Such crimes were increasing, it warned — and lynchings were "the only remedy." The article dismissed those who denied that lynching worked as a deterrent. "White men and law-abiding tax-payers do not care to feed, week after week in jail, and incur other expenses in bringing to punishment such fiends in human shape."

There was no evidence behind the hysteria over sexual violence against white women by black men. But the manufactured threat had embedded itself firmly in the Southern psyche. According to EJI, "Nearly 25 percent of the lynchings of African Americans in the South were based on charges of sexual assault" — and an allegation alone was enough. When pioneering journalist Ida B. Wells dared to suggest that the real fear animating such propaganda was of miscegenation - and showed evidence that some lynching victims had, in fact, been in consensual, clandestine relationships with white women — she was forced to flee her home in Memphis.

Wells's defiant activism would spur a wave of bad press about Southern lynchings. After a series of her lectures abroad, Southern governors felt compelled to respond. "I am opposed to lynch law for anything but rape," the governor of South Carolina insisted in a 1884 letter printed in the Eufaula Times and News. The governors of Georgia and Virginia were also "highly indignant," another Alabama newspaper reported, reminding readers that while lynch mobs might be deplorable, the crimes they sought to punish were far worse. Undeterred, Wells published the Red Record the following year, including lynching statistics and featuring a postcard from a lynching in Clanton, Alabama. Activists would learn to weaponize such photos in the years to come, and eventually lynchings would fall out of favor. But even in 1895, the Eufaula Times and News showed a shift in rhetoric. There were doubts over the guilt of a recently lynched man in Florida, the paper reported that summer. Hasty acts of passion did not "make the same profound impression that imprisonment, trial by jury, and legal execution carry with them. Lynchings are not as deterrent of crime as legal punishment."

In 1900, as Alabama prepared to ratify a new constitution enshrining white supremacy by law, a major event was held in Montgomery: the first conference of the Southern Society for the Promotion of the Study of Race Conditions and Problems in the South. Over three days in May, speakers looked to the future, while bidding good riddance to the dangerous ideas of the Reconstruction era. "In that day, miscegenation was by many looked upon with so little of horror that even Alabama judges on our Supreme Court bench decided that no law of the State could interfere with the right of whites and negroes to intermarry," a former Alabama congressman declared in his introductory remarks. Fortunately, he added, a new legal era was in place, "and we shall never more hear of such decisions." Still, the "Negro problem" had not been resolved. Conference attendees agreed that the 15th Amendment had failed, that science proved the inferiority of black people, and that the abolition of slavery had spawned a generation of black men who posed a threat to white women everywhere.

On the third day, a lawyer from Atlanta delivered a lecture titled, "The Punishment of Crimes Against Women, Existing Legal Remedies and Their Sufficiency." "Even some of those who decry lynching and wish to have punishment meted out according to law are clamoring for some new method of procedure and punishment, which shall not only swiftly annihilate the criminal; but strike terror to the ignorant and criminals of the race," he declared. South Carolina was leading the way, he noted. The previous year, newspapers had reported the state's "first legal execution for criminal assault."

The death penalty had largely subsided in the South at the time. In Alabama, according to the Espy File, no legal executions had been carried out from 1869 to 1874. But soon Southern states began to revise their death penalty laws. As Northern states had done decades before, many states moved executions away from public view and inside local jails, although certain exceptions remained, ostensibly to serve as a deterrent. "In 1901," Stuart Banner writes in "The Death Penalty: An American History," "Arkansas abolished public hanging except for rape, a crime for which capital punishment was in practice largely limited to blacks. ... Kentucky, which had abolished public hanging in 1880, brought it back for rape and attempted rape in 1920, at the discretion of local officials."

Newspaper reports from the turn of the century show a series of "firsts" throughout the South. In 1905, the first legal execution for "criminal assault" in North Carolina's Sampson County was attended by 25 people, who had bought tickets for the occasion. That same year, Fulton County, Georgia carried out its first legal execution for criminal assault, hanging the "Negro assailant" of the wife of an Atlanta merchant. Legal executions were spreading for new crimes as well. In 1903, three black men were hanged for robbery for the first time in Alabama. That same year, 5,000 people attended the first legal execution in Randolph County, Alabama. The Advertiser reported it in detail, describing a number of humane touches: the man's "hearty breakfast," a last cigarette that evening, and the moving goodbye between the condemned and his wife. ("Seldom is such faithfulness seen in the colored race.")

The rise of legal executions was widely regarded as a positive trend. In April 1903, an Alabama paper reported that Mississippi had not seen a single lynching since the start of the year. Records suggested the reason was a "plentitude of legal hangings." Still, lynchings continued, and newspapers defended those they deemed justified. In 1906, two black men accused of raping white children were seized from a train by a lynch mob in Mobile. The governor was notified but did not intervene. "The Mob Was Very Orderly," the Montgomery Advertiser wrote, noting that even a "legal hanging could not have been more quiet."

By 1915, according to EJI's Lynching in America, "Court-ordered executions outpaced lynchings in the former slave states for the first time." In Alabama, following the botched hanging of a white man — "Grewsome and Harrowing Scenes enacted at County Jail Today Demand Change In This State," the Montgomery Times announced — officials decided that it was time to make executions more befitting of a civilized age. Other states had already begun killing people by electrocution, a modern marvel that captured the popular imagination. In 1923, Alabama joined other states in moving executions to the middle of the night and the first electric chair was installed in Montgomery's Kilby prison.

The first to die in the electric chair was a black man named Horace de Vaughn. The Montgomery Advertiser described an air of solemnity — de Vaughn was respectful, sitting down unassisted, and the prison "was wrapped in absolute silence." A doctor declared it the best execution he'd ever seen, the newspaper announced. "Alabama justice has been carried into execution in as quick, painless and clean a manner as science has been able to devise."

Here is shown a part of the crowd of 10,000 persons who jammed the courthouse square in the little town of Scottsboro, Alabama, April 6, 1933, on the opening of the trials of nine black youths accused of attacking two white girls near Sevenson, Ala., March 24, 1931. National Guardsmen with fixed bayonets patrolled the courthouse grounds, and women and minors were barred from the courtroom. The state asked for the death penalty for the first two defendants to be placed on trial. The other seven will be tried later. The nine were identified by the two girls as the ones who boarded the freight car in which they and seven white youths were riding, forced five of the white youths from the train, knocked the other two unconscious and attacked the girls. (AP Photo)

A part of the crowd of 10,000 people who jammed the courthouse square in Scottsboro, Ala., on April 6, 1933, the opening of the trials of nine black youths accused of attacking two white women near Sevenson, Ala., two years prior.

Photo: AP

In the meantime, as Alabama's electric chair approached its 10-year anniversary, the Montgomery Advertiser assessed its record. "Of the 55 who passed through the little green door to die," it reported, "47 were negroes and eight were white."

The lynching marker in Tuscaloosa is located on Sixth Street, in front of the old county jail. A couple blocks east, a six-lane boulevard cuts through downtown, named for the wife of segregationist ex-Gov. George Wallace. On the other side, a cluster of trendy shops and restaurants leads to the University of Alabama campus. On the Saturday after the EJI Peace and Justice Summit in Montgomery, a free outdoor concert attracted a mostly white crowd to an event called Alabama Roots Fest.

The lynching marker on the other side of the boulevard was placed by EJI in 2017. The last victim mentioned, David Cross, was shot to death in 1933 by a mob dressed as police officers, who accused him of trying to assault a white woman at a country club. "The County Sheriff later stated that the woman Cross was accused of assaulting had in fact never been attacked," it reads.

On the South Side, just over the railroad tracks in a black neighborhood people still call Shacktown, I met the family of a man on Alabama's death row who maintains his innocence. The man's fiancée, a teacher named Crystal, had not been to Montgomery for years — she was only vaguely aware of EJI's new memorial and museum. "That's a good reason to go," she said. History is not accurately taught in Tuscaloosa, she told me. The "misleading" begins as early as pre-K, she said, when kids learn about Christopher Columbus. "When it comes to black history, it's just that one month."

The link between lynchings and the death penalty felt logical to Crystal in a way that racism in Tuscaloosa is instinctive and familiar. "You just kind of have to live it," she said. Black people in Tuscaloosa are heavily policed, including by campus officers with the University of Alabama. "They tolerate the athletes," Crystal said, but black people from her side of town otherwise stay away.

In the '50s and '60s, the university was the scene of riots protesting desegregation. Years before Wallace notoriously blocked the schoolhouse doors on campus, a black woman named Autherine Lucy was briefly enrolled at UA, only to be met by mobs who threw eggs, burned desegregationist literature, and waved Confederate flags. The university board expelled Lucy — ostensibly for her own protection - but she would return to the College of Education decades later. Last year, six months after EJI erected the lynching marker, the university honored Lucy with a historical marker of her own, lauding her role in making the university "truly 'one for all.'"

The Tuscaloosa campus holds a piece of EJI's history too. When the office first opened in 1989, under the banner of the Alabama Capital Representation Project, its original headquarters were at the law school building. In his best-selling memoir, "Just Mercy," Bryan Stevenson describes how the university withdrew its support within the first few months of operation, "and we discovered just how hard it was to find lawyers to come to Alabama and do full-time death penalty work for less than $25,000 a year." Months later, the office moved to Montgomery.


The EJI offices in Montgomery, Ala.

Photo: Liliana Segura/The Intercept