Thoughts about the execution of Troy Davis

Many of my co-bloggers here at LOOG have commented about the execution of Troy Davis, both on the sub-blogs and on the main page.  Despite there being no shortage of opinion already thus expressed hereabouts, it feels inappropriate somehow to avoid discussing it here.

I will admit to not having followed the case particularly closely.  My rough understanding, gleaned from news reports over the past few days, is that Davis was convicted of murdering a police officer over twenty years ago without any physical evidence linking him to the crime.  Already this troubles me, given that he was sentenced to die.  To worsen matters, many of the witnesses whose testimony led to his conviction have since recanted.  Under these circumstances, I have a terrible time understanding how there was sufficient certainty in this man’s guilt to have taken his life.

At brother-blog Notes from Babel, Tom writes:

Again, to avoid the tall weeds of the particulars—and every advocate is an expert—the legal process has been observed every step of the way. It’s not the legal system’s job to retry a case from scratch every year for decades. Davis was convicted in 1991; he’s had 20 years of appeals on numerous and varied grounds including whether the electric chair is unconstitutional under the 8th Amendment.

As I’ve already conceded, I am no expert.  My only response to this is to ask how, if every legal recourse has been exhausted (and I agree the legal system should not have to retry cases ad infinitum) and yet there still seem to be obvious questions about the guilt of the convicted, the legal system can justly allow for death as an ultimate outcome?  If a plausibly innocent man can run out of legal options to save his life, then the system clearly fails what seems a very obvious test.  (I hasten to point out that Tom is not arguing in favor of Davis’s execution in his post, but merely making a related point.)  If Davis can truly be said to have been executed within the law, then the law provides insufficient justification for the death penalty.

Over at the main page, Chris makes reference to the similarly-timed execution of an unrepentant, loathsome murderer in Texas whose guilt is beyond question:

Yesterday, two men were murdered by the state, one in Georgia and one in Texas. They were both convicted of murder, but their similarities end there: one was black, the other was a white supremacist; one was convicted solely on eye witness testimony for shooting a police officer, the other not only admitted to committing the heinous crime for which he was sentence to death, but as recently as this week told a Houston reported that he had no regrets and would do it all over again

I will admit to feeling no catch in my throat that the world is rid of Lawrence Russell Brewer.  If one were to pick a “perfect” poster boy for capital punishment, one could scarcely do better than this vile person.  Timothy McVeigh, Ted Bundy, Osama bin Laden — the state-sanctioned deaths of these men do not trouble my sleep.

But can I call my disgust for these men and satisfaction at their demises anything other than a desire for vengeance?  If executions cannot be credibly supported for their deterrent effect on crime (which I believe they cannot be), then what argument remains beyond “they had it coming”?  And even if they did, was that a sufficient reason for the state to actually give it to them?  It seems to me that our government should not be in the revenge business.

If our system of justice could somehow guarantee that the death penalty would only ever be used for those whose guilt was incontrovertible and whose crimes were truly depraved, I suspect it would not bother me all that much.  This probably says more about my own moral shortcomings than it does about the justice of executions.  That our system of justice allows for deeply troubling cases like those of Davis or Cameron Todd Willingham makes capital punishment impossible to support.  Our desire to blot out the lives of those whose proven crimes are genuinely heinous is a shaky foundation for such a weighty and irrevocable act.  The possibility that even one innocent man could be among their number undermines that foundation entirely.

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.

One Comment

  1. One thing that I think gets lost in all this discussion of the death penalty (and I’m just as guilty as anyone else) is that it’s possible people who are “plausibly” innocent of lesser crimes get put in prison, sometimes for large number of years, and yet their (allegedly) unjustified imprisonment does not arouse the same controversy, even though such imprisonment is probably more widespread by far than unjustified executions.

    And of course, death has a finality that even life in prison does not seem (to me) to have. Still, if someone is in jail for 30 years and then his conviction is overturned, then that is still 30 years of liberty lost. He is still alive, but he has lost those years of freedom.

    I am speaking in generalities, and do not have statistics to back up what I suspect is true. And because this discussion has been initiated after what appears to have been an unjustified execution, then it’s natural that the focus should be on the death penalty and not other problems in our prison system.

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