On Twitter, some folks have taken issue the statement in my piece about Jeff Sessions that “as a U.S. attorney for Alabama, he sought and obtained the death penalty for a KKK murderer.” The story is complicated, and some have read my piece as implying that Sessions actually prosecuted the death penalty case against Klansman Henry Francis Hays in trial court. He was not the trial attorney on the case. Instead, Sessions helped facilitate the state prosecution specifically so the killer could receive the death penalty and later, as Alabama’s attorney general, helped make sure the penalty was imposed. Mark Hemingway at the Weekly Standard has the details:
Hays was obviously tried in state court. However, Sessions’s office did a lot of initial investigation and legwork on the case, and my understanding was that Sessions worked with the DA to make sure that the case got into state court specifically for the reason of seeking the death penalty. And in fact, a recent CBS News report notes that in Sessions’s failed judiciary confirmation hearings in 1986 Sessions testified “he had been involved in the decision to try one of the killers in state court so he could face the death penalty.” That has not been disputed since then, so far as I can tell.
Sessions later brought up Hays’s accomplice and Hays’s father on federal charges related to the murder—a 1985 AP story quotes Sessions saying “justice has been done” after his office got a life sentence in federal court for Hays’s accomplice James Knowles. Between the investigative work and that it appears Sessions was working with the state on an overall prosecutorial strategy, I understood Sessions to be saying he prosecuted Hays in a broader sense. This would not be inaccurate, even if some people were confused that it did not mean that as a U.S. attorney Sessions was obviously not the guy who conducted the trial in a state court.
The bottom line: Sessions was instrumental in seeing a Klan murderer charged with the death penalty, and later worked as Alabama’s attorney general to see that the death sentence was carried out swiftly, making Henry Francis Hays the first white man executed in Alabama for murdering a black person since 1913. Sessions spent the better part of two decades going after the Klan in Alabama, and that should be kept in mind when you assess the decades old charges that he is racist.
I agree wholeheartedly with Mark’s conclusion. Those who try to argue that Sessions is a racist have to reckon with his legal track record — a record that included pursuing the ultimate penalty against a Klan killer.