Thursday, September 22, 2011

How Troy Davis Changed My Mind

I have long hemmed and hawed over the death penalty.  Everyone who reads this blog knows that I am, without a doubt, one of the most liberal people you could possibly know.  I support a woman's right to choose in regards to both abortion and her right to dress anyway she wants without fear of rape, I support full equality for LGBT citizens, and I stand firm in the idea that America became great because of immigrants and will continue to become great by allowing foreign nationals to become Americans.  I think unions are the backbone of our workforce, and I think social programs are necessary for the continued functioning of a free society.

The death penalty, however, is something I've never really decided on.  It seemed to be a big black mark on my progressive "resume."  You see, I have long felt that there are people who just deserved to die.

It is true that there are people who commit despicable, heinous crimes.  Many of these criminals most likely had nothing left to contribute to society aside from lasting harm, death, and horror.  The death penalty, I thought, provides a solution to the Jeffrey Dahmers, Charles Mansons, and John Wayne Gacys of the world.  These people were irredeemable and seemed not only a drain on our nation's resources, but a genuine danger to its citizenry.  Should they not be put to death?

Troy Davis changed that for me.

If you haven't heard of Troy Davis by now, you likely live under a rock.  His story, marked with tragedy and heartbreak, is a long one I won't repeat in full here, save for some few salient points.

He was first arrested in 1989 for the shooting of an off-duty police officer, Mark MacPhail, in the idyllic city of Savannah, Georgia.  He was given what many called a fair trial, though it seemed marked by inconsistencies.  Evidence was barred due to alleged police brutality in its gathering, conflicting testimony was given, and a lack of murder weapon seemed to throw the proceedings into doubt.  However, it took a jury of his peers only two hours to decide his guilt and an additional seven to sentence him to death.

He maintained his innocence the entire time.

His conviction started a long-drawn out saga that stretched decades.  He, of course, appealed his sentence numerous times on numerous terms.  All of his appeals were denied, and he was scheduled for death.

His first execution date was set for July of 2007.  At the last minute, a stay of execution was ordered, as there had been several key witnesses who recanted their testimony, stating that they did not believe Davis committed the crime for which he was convicted.  All of these recantations and considerations were discarded, clemency was denied by the state of Georgia, and Troy Davis was scheduled to be executed in September of 2008.  Once again, just two hours before he was due to be put to death, a stay of execution was ordered in order to examine pertinent facts.

Those pertinent facts, however, weren't deemed pertinent enough, and his third execution date was for October 2008.  Once again death was averted, as his lawyers won a third stay in order to examine further documents proving his innocence.  The evidence was barred, as the judge ruled that recantations that late in the game were highly suspicious.

And so on and so on.  For years Davis was brought to the brink of death and snatched back, a traumatic process that many exclaimed was cruel and unusual.  The case went to the Supreme Court and back, with Justices Scalia and Thomas declaring that Davis' claim of innocence was "a sure loser."  The court case dragged on and on, with the defense repeatedly attempting to have evidence examined that could exonerate Davis and the State dismissing it out of hand.

He maintained his innocence the entire time.

His fourth execution date was September 21st, 2011.  He once again sought clemency and was denied.  He once again waited to die.  The White House refused to intervene and he filed a petition for the US Supreme Court to hear his case.  This gave him scant few extra hours as his execution on the 21st was delayed, waiting to hear whether the highest court in the land would deign to sit for the case.

It refused.  At 11:08 on September 21st, Troy Davis was put to death.  Witnesses to his execution reported that his last words were simple appeals maintaining his innocence, one last time.  He then prayed to God that He would bless his executioners.  He was injected with a fatal dose of drugs, he yawned, and then he died.

Troy Davis has changed my mind.  This is... more than a disappointment in our judicial system.  It is a genuine, tragic, and murderous failure of Justice.  It is one of the cornerstone tenets of our court system that we cannot put a man to death unless we are sure, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he is guilty.  His guilt, while asserted as fact by that first jury, countless judges, and the Chatham County prosecutor, was called into question dozens of times in the last twenty years.

He maintained his innocence to the last, and the evidence piled up, sky-high, indicating that he actually might be.  It was disregarded and he was executed, and I have unease.  I believe we may have executed an innocent man.  That is unacceptable.

How is it that his evidence, over and over again, was discarded as irrelevant?  I can't help but think that the people who put him to death through their refusal to hear his story are now guilty of the worst sort of callousness.  Perhaps, after so many stays and so many delays, they just looked at this human being and said "Oh, kill him already.  He's wasting our time."

Is this bloodlust?  Or just a lack of concern for the life of one man?

That is why I now can firmly say that I am against the death penalty.  Do I think some people deserve to die?  Yes.  I do.  I think some people's crimes are heinous enough that they should no longer be on planet Earth.  Do I think our system is perfect enough to judge whether or not a person should die?  No.  No way.  Clearly, miscarriages of justice can and will occur.  Our methods of prosecuting criminals are imperfect, and when the lives of men and women are at stake we cannot use imperfect means to consider their deaths.

Troy Davis maintained his innocence to his last minutes, and we didn't listen.  He asked God to forgive us that sin, but we are as yet unabsolved.  The only way that we, as a society, can excise this stain on our collective conscience is to ensure that this does not happen again.  In order to safeguard the lives of the innocent, we must cease to slay the guilty, or Troy Davis' last words, asking God to bless us, his executioners, may fall on deaf ears.


  1. There's a difference between supporting the philosophy of the death penalty and supporting it as good public policy. I've come to decide that it's horrible public policy, but it may be a decent and arguably reasonable philosophy. When we take the practical application of a philosophy and then observe its results, you would think people would be willing to change their mind. The death penalty as a philosophy is supposed to be a deterrent to crime as well as the ultimate distribution of justice. It's clear that it is not a deterrent, and in many cases it is not just. It's therefore bad public policy.

  2. This is only ONE of the many reasons why the death penalty doesn't work....

  3. I think your take on this, and the write up in general, is pretty amazing. I really enjoyed reading this.