The Death Penalty and the Execution of Troy Davis

On September 21st 2011, Troy Davis was executed by the state of Georgia for the murder of a police officer, Mark MacPhail, in 1989.  Davis was convicted on the basis of evidence from nine eyewitnesses – seven of whom have since recanted their testimony, stating that they had been forced to cooperate by the police under threat of being put on trial themselves should they not comply.  One of the two who did not reverse the evidence he provided was Sylvester Coles, a man who has been identified by several people as the actual killer of MacPhail.  Indeed, three witnesses provided affidavits that Coles had confessed the murder to them.  There was no forensic evidence linking Troy Davis to the crime, no murder weapon found, no DNA evidence presented.  Despite all of this, upon appeal to the 11th Circuit Court, Davis was told that he was not entitled to a retrial as he had “failed to prove his innocence”.

On December 7th 2000, Claude Howard Jones was executed by the state of Texas for the murder of Allen Hilzendager in his liquor store in Point Blank, TX.  Jones protested his innocence up until his death – ten years later in 2010, he was exonerated after DNA evidence proved that the hair that had connected him to the scene of the crime was, in fact, not his.  Claude Howard Jones is proven not guilty – he remains dead.

1,269 people have been executed in the United States since 1976 – while a further 3,251 prisoners are currently on Death Row.

Executions in the US by year

How many of those put to death were innocent of their crime? It will never be known for sure whether or not Troy Davis was responsible for the murder of Mark MacPhail – but if there is any shred of doubt, why would the execution be carried out?  Surely one innocent person being murdered is too many, therefore the utmost scrutiny should be given to capital cases and the onus should be on the prosecution to prove beyond all doubt the guilt of the suspect.

The execution of the innocent is only one of the reasons I am against the death penalty, albeit the most important one. Arguments for capital punishment cite it as being a deterrent to those considering crimes, but evidence does not support this -the murder rate in the United States increased in the years following the reintroduction of the death penalty in 1976 – showing no downward turn due to fear of execution.  The majority of capital offences are crimes of passion – situations in which the perpetrator is not thinking rationally and would not avoid an action due to a supposed deterrent.  Capital punishment is also clearly irreversible – while you can release someone who has been incarcerated incorrectly and attempt to compensate them for the time they have lost, if you execute someone it can never be undone.

Arguments based on financial cost of lifetime imprisonment versus the death penalty do not hold up, as studies have shown that capital cases cost more to the taxpayer than incarceration without parole.  (While I do not think that monetary concerns should be the basis of an argument to put someone to death, I note it here as a further assertion against capital punishment).  If the cost of keeping people in prison is of concern, then the primary area that should be looked into is sentences for non-violent offenders for drug related crimes – it’s a separate point entirely but 20+ years for simple possession of narcotics is far too punitive.

July 17th, 2007.  September 23rd, 2008.  October 27th, 2008.  September 21st, 2011.  Four different days that Troy Davis was given as the date he would be executed – it is hard to imagine the psychological trauma of a person who knows they are scheduled to die and then it is delayed, three times.  The delays were due to his appeals, as Davis was fighting to prove his innocence the whole time, but this appointment with a lethal injection meant that, unlike everyone else in the world who is not on Death Row, he had a clock ticking down to the end of his life.  That he had a small amount of time added on with each stay of execution did nothing to change the fact that the days, hours and minutes were running out for him.  Innocent or guilty, this psychological torture falls under the definition of cruel and unusual punishment – a fate that the 8th Amendment is supposed to protect citizens from.

There is, of course, the argument of retribution – the death penalty as justice for the families and friends of the victims of capital crimes.  I have total sympathy with those who have lost a loved one, in that situation I am sure that I would want to kill the person responsible myself.  However, that is the reason that trials are by a jury of peers and not those directly affected by the crime – it is important for due process to happen, a critical examination of the evidence and an appropriate sentence handed down by the judge.  Executions of guilty people have brought back to life exactly none of their victims – it is a primal desire to want to see the person responsible for taking someone from you to die – but it does not change what has happened, does not deter future crimes from occurring and, in the long run, will not provide comfort to those who sought the vengeance in the first place.

One final point, as I noted here, Rick Perry’s record of 234 executions carried out in the state of Texas under his Governorship was cheered by the crowd at the Republican Debate earlier this month.  Conservative blogger Michelle Malkin on Twitter (@michellemalkin) was appalled that #RIPTROYDAVIS was trending – rather than #RIPMARKMACPHAIL.  The death of MacPhail should be remembered and his memory honoured – I do not believe that he, as a police officer who was working a second job as a security guard on the night he was killed, would believe that having someone put to death based on questionable evidence was the way to do this.  It also missed a couple of crucial points: that Davis might have been innocent and, if he was in fact guilty, he had thus paid the debt that society imposed on him by losing his life.  Is Malkin against people resting in peace after they have been executed?  Does this carry over to those who have served time in prison for crimes – should they never be forgiven despite rehabilitation?

The United States currently has a political climate based on hate of anyone who has an opposing view – Malkin herself was subjected to disgusting racist abuse which she re-tweeted – ignorant people who took Alec Baldwin’s (@alecbaldwin) plea to his followers to “Go all town hall” on her as a suggestion to be vile rather than provide reasoned debate.  Freedom from persecution is one of the building blocks of the USA, people have the right to hold whatever opinions they desire, as along as their actions do not impinge on anyone else’s inalienable rights.  Reasoned debate is needed over the use of the death penalty, I fear that at the present time such a thing will not be allowed to occur.  To me, the death penalty is not justice, just wrong.

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