this is "nightline." >> tonight, the fight to reform the death penalty. how a mother called for mercy instead of execution. >> knowing that the justice system was already agains him and my son, i don't want to help that system. it doesn't need any help. >> and why a lawyer dedicated his life to changing a system and freeing the wrongfully accused. >> thank you, jesus! >> the death penalty was a response to the inability to continue lynching people with impunity. plus stirring the soul of america. how andra day channeled the legend billie holiday in a new film. ♪ strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees ♪
we take a deep dive into america's racial divide. not the economy or health care or education. all interconnected for certain. go with us to death row, where justice has on often been more biased than it is blind. here's abc's pierre thomas. >> it was only three of us that grew up in our household. my older brother, my older sister. i'm the baby. he's my big brother, my only brother. >> reporter: pamela woods still agonizing over what she believes is the unjust execution of her brother, nathaniel. >> i think about all the different things i could have done or if i should have done if, if i should have done that. would he still be here? >> reporter: june 17th, 2004, police raided a suspected drug house near birmingham, alabama. nathaniel woods was surrendering when his cousin, carrie spencer opened fire on police, killing three officers. woods was arrested along with spencer and charged as an accomplice.
prosecutors argued that woods lured the officers in to be gunned down. spencer claims woods played no role in the shooting. >> your brother did not pull the trigger? >> he didn't have any gun on him, he didn't shoot anybody. what did you arrest him for? he ran like anybody else would. he ran for his life. and they charged him with the actual murders. >> did he have a sense the system would work for him? >> he thought the system would work because he didn't do anything wrong. he had no reason to believe he could be convicted of it, that he could be executed. >> the judge, do you remember what he said? >> yeah. and they sentenced him to death. >> reporter: in america, death seems to be on display. the killings of black americans pierce the country's consciousness. questions of race, policing, and criminal justice again taking center stage. tonight, there's a critical question about the state exercising its ultimate power, taking a life, the death
penalty. >> the death penalty in this country isn't a topic that can be resolved by asking whether people deserve to die for the crimes they've committed. the threshold question is, do we deserve to kill? >> it was probably the hottest day in july that i can ever remember. my mother was in there making some lemonade. i went in to get a glass. and she said, well, you got time to go cut that grass. 25 minutes into cutting the grass, i just happened to look up. there stood two white gentlemen i'd never seen before. and one of them said, we're looking for anthony ray hinson. >> reporter: july 31st, 1985, anthony ray hinton was accused of the homicide of two
restaurant owners in birmingham. the main evidence was his mother's smith & wesson revolver which the state claimed matched the bullets at the crime scene. >> i said, you got the wrong person, i haven't done any of that. he looked at me like he had no use for me at all. and he said, number one, a white man is going to say you shot him. whether you shot him or not, i don't care. he said, number two, you're going to have a white prosecutor. number three, you're going to have a white judge. number four, you're going to have an all-white jury. and we're going to say it's murder proper. he said, do you know what that spell? he repeated the word, conviction, conviction, conviction, conviction, conviction, five times. >> reporter: kelly greer's son mercury was only 21 years old when he was shot and killed in 1999. >> we actually got to mercury before the paramedics got there. we had a couple of words with
each other and the paramedics came. early that morning, dick told us that he didn't make it, and went back to see him. he was still wrm. and there was a little tear coming from his eye. i remember that. yeah. >> reporter: the alleged shooter had a felony conviction on his record and now faced a capital murder charge. >> i'm not sure what i wanted from the trial. i knew i didn't want any more death. what i saw, another young black man standing there, who happened to be the young man who killed my son, what was him getting life or the december penalty going to do? knowing that the justice system was already against him and my son, i didn't want to help that system. it doesn't need my help. i told the judge, whatever you do today, it's not going to bring mercury back.
>> we are haunted by a 400-year curse that was created when we embraced these narratives of racial difference. these ideologies of racial hierarchy and white supremacy. and the death penalty was a response to the inability to continue lynching people with impunity. >> you call it a what? >> a stepchild of lynching, absolutely. >> reporter: anthony ray hinton could not afford an attorney. one was assigned to him by the court. that detective proved prophetic. mr. hinton faced a white judge, a white prosecutor, and an all-white jury. he was convicted and sent to dead row. >> death row, first and foremost, is pure hell. somebody's hollering all night, all day. you smell the flesh of another human being that they just killed. my cell was 30 yards away from the execution chamber. i had to try and keep the smell
of fresh-cut grass in my mind for as long as i could, because that's the last thing i smelled of the free world. my body went to death row, but my mind never did. >> in your quietest moments when it's just you, and you're thinking of him, what do you think? >> i think, what if i had fought a little harder? what if i had -- sat up in the courtroom with that litigation and said something to the judge? would he still be here? his mom has cancer, now you took their dad?
>> the supreme court had an opportunity to strike down the death penalty in 1987 after it had been presented with really compelling evidence about racial disparities. and it was disappointed to read that decision. the court said, a certain quantity of discrimination, a certain amount of racial bias in the administration of the death penalty, it's just, well, inevitable. >> reporter: after 13 years on death row, mr. hinton's case was taken on by attorney brian stevenson. three ballistics experts established that the bullets from the old revolver did not match the bullets from the crime scene. but the state of alabama refused to look at the evidence for another 12 years. after the u.s. supreme court intervened, mr. hinton was exonerated. >> thank you, jesus! thank you, lord! >> so -- still brings back
emotions? >> i had always made my mom a promise. that we would be together again. and my mom just couldn't hold on any longer. i didn't get a chance to -- to say good-bye. this is a system that most people would have you believe is broke. the system is not broke. the system run exactly the way it's designed to run. >> when the george floyd video came out, what was your reaction wen you saw it? >> couldn't bear to look at it. it was a new form of lynching. >> you believe capital punishment is? >> i often say, they brought the trees from the outside and brought it on the inside.
>> i do not support the death penalty. i would say to people that said, an eye for a eye, tooth for a tooth, a life for a life, as a way of closure? i look at closure totally a different way. i want healing. i ■wantealing. of course the young man had to do some time for killing my son. of course. there was a penalty for that. his life? no. >> you're choosing who you want to die. you're killing people whether you know they're innocent or not. once you find that they are innocent, you can't bring them back. >> if we have a criminal justice system that treats you better if you're rich and guilty than in you're poor and innocent, that tolerates the kind of error our system has produced. ? we have a criminal justice system that has allowed this kind of racial bias that we've seen over and over, we do not deserve to kill. that's the question i think
states have to grapple with before they allow another person to be executed. ♪ this old building and my soul has got to move ♪ ♪ my soul has got to move my soul has got to move ♪ ♪ there's a leak in this old building and my soul has got to move ♪ >> our thanks to pierre. coming up, from billie holiday to andra day, how the song "strange fruit" takes new meaning in america's fight for civil rights. ar a lot of folks say they feel like they have to rinse off dirty dishes like these before loading them in the dish washer. but new cascade platinum changes all that. new cascade platinum, with 50% more cleaning power!
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♪ legend billie holiday left behind a powerful legacy of music. her songs at times protesting haunting injustice, stirring the soul of america. now united states versus billie holiday, the new film on the barrier-breaking pioneer, portrayed by oscar-nominated singer andra day. here's abc's linsey davis. ♪ ♪ there ain't nothing i can do or nothing i can say ♪ >> let's start with the oscar nomination. congratulations. >> thank you. thank you so much. ♪ but i'm going to do just as i
want to anyway ♪ >> it feels actually surreal a little bit. >> and the golden globe goes to -- andra day. >> you already won golden globe. only the second black woman to win for best actress since whoopi goldberg in "the color purple." >> whoopi goldberg, "the color purple." >> what do you make of it taking nearly four decades for another black woman to win? >> i'm so, so grateful for the award. it's not lost on me that for 35-plus years, black women were really made to feel sort of inadequate in this space. we're not just fighting the art part of it, getting our stories told. we're fighting making space in culture to say, hey, you've not heard the truth of our narratives. ♪ i love me when i take on ♪ >> "billie holiday is the voice of our people."
>> what is your favorite billie holiday song? >> oh my god. a pretty consistent one i will say is "god bless the child." ♪ but god bless the child that's got his own that's got his own ♪ >> i also love -- ♪ the loveable huggable miss brown to you is baby to me ♪ >> my next guest -- >> there's a part in the movie when she's being interviewed, and he asks, why is the government always going after you? and she says, my song "strange fruit." >> reminds them that they're killing us. reminds them. it reminds you too. ♪ southern trees ♪ >> get her off that stage. >> do you feel that a song has that much power? >> absolutely, it does.
i always say that the system of racial inequality, right, is a system where they have to control the narrative, and they have for a very long time. where they have to suppress it, where they have to lie. a song like "strange fruit" is a really healthy dose of truth. ♪ blood on the leaves and blood at the roots ♪ >> we watched george floyd be lynched. we saw that. we saw him crying out for his mother. we watched that happen to ahmaud arbery. khalif proud waters a huge one for me as well. >> talk about "strange fruit." perhaps, arguably, the ultimate protest song. but then "rise up" as well became this soundtrack and anthem for the black lives matter movement. ♪ and i'll rise up i'll rise like the day ♪ ♪ i will rise up ♪ >> "rise up," it wasn't like i went, i want to make an anthem, i want this to change people's lives. to be honest with you, i felt a
little exhausted. it was the first time in my life i was questioning whether music was something that i was going to do for a living. so i really prayed in my car and just asked -- it was a surrender moment. i said, god action whatever you want to say. what do you want to hear, what do you want me to write? ♪ it is hope ♪ >> doubt, right? >> absolutely. >> the self-doubt that you've expressed. >> oh my god. >> about yourself with taking this role. >> yeah, i think that was the hardest thing to overcome for me was self-doubt. now the term is imposter syndrome or something like that now. i was like, yeah, i deal with that. i think we all do, to a degree. it was really having to trust and just say, i've been equipped, like with whatever it is i need for this thing, i have to trust. >> camera set. >> you're going to sing "tigers in tweed" for us. >> yes, yes. ♪ strange fruit will come down off the tree ♪
♪ cut it down under your feet ♪ >> to me it sounds like the evolution of "strange fruit." >> yes, yes. >> give us a sense of where it came from. >> one of the questions in my mind was, if billie holiday were alive today, how would she have wanted to see "strange fruit" evolved, right? one of the first things that came to mind was, take them off the tree, get them off the true. >> fruit stand tall. >> roots go deep, cut it down under your feet. i wanted to feel like -- liberation. i wanted it to feel, you know, like we were mobilized and unified and evolved. ♪ you hear them say say say say a prayer for me ♪ >> our thanks to linsey. you'll find full episodes of "soul of a nation" on hulu. up next, the mini selena fan charming the world's little
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