The idea of Georgia inmate Troy Davis lying on a gurney in an agonizing wait for nine justices hundreds of miles away to resolve in a single-sentence statement that he should in fact die — even if innocent — should be enough to give pause to the most ardent supporters of the death penalty. Davis was executed for the killing of a police officer 22 years ago, despite scant forensic evidence and recantations over the years of most of the eyewitnesses. Even some of the jurors said they’ve changed their minds about his guilt.
“Casey Anthony is found not guilty by reasonable doubt, but Troy Davis is executed despite tremendous and widespread doubt,” was one of the most salient tweets during an evening in which Troy Davis was the biggest topic on Twitter.
This execution wasn’t justice. My sympathies to the family of officer Mark MacPhail, but this wasn’t even the retribution they were seeking.
It is these kinds of miscarriages of justice that strengthen calls for abolishing the death penalty. The New York Times editorial page said Davis was an example that “across the country, the legal process for the death penalty has shown itself to be discriminatory, unjust and incapable of being fixed.”
That depends on where you live. In Washington state, the death penalty is carried out rarely and, so far, absent the racial disparities plaguing other states. Included in the handful of executions since the state resumed the death penalty in the 1990s were Cal Coburn Brown, who raped, tortured and killed a 22-yearold woman, and Westley Alan Dodd, who kept a torture rack in his house and killed little boys. Those were easy calls.
The tougher calls rightly become life sentences. Some states are drenched in blood, given how many people were wrongly sent to their deaths. Southern states, marked by racial and socioeconomic disparities in the justice system, ought to refrain from using the death penalty. Where caution is warranted, states ought to do like Illinois: An alarming number of exonerations led then-Gov. George Ryan to empty death row.
But lumping all death-penalty states, or cases, together doesn’t work for me or the two out of three Americans identified in a Gallup poll last year in support of the death penalty.
The same night Davis was put to death, an avowed white supremacist who killed a man by dragging him from the end of a truck — eventually decapitating him — was executed in Texas. I’m not confused about that man’s culpability or the appropriateness of the punishment. I’m even fine with the high costs of prosecuting such cases. When someone’s life is on the line, no expense should be spared.
But here’s the lesson all of us death penalty supporters must take from Troy Davis’ death: Be certain every time. Or don’t make the death penalty available at all. If you believe that even with the 21st century’s forensic and technological advances this is too high a threshold to meet, you’re a vote for abolishing the death penalty.
Let’s return to capital punishment as a rare option for the most heinous crimes; a punishment carried out not as a deterrent, but as a true punishment for those we’re certain deserve it. Otherwise, as Davis said in his final words: “May God have mercy on our souls.”
Lynne Varner is a columnist for The Seattle Times. Readers may send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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