Debates about the death penalty often take place in the abstract: Is the state justified in depriving life from someone who has robbed it from someone else? Though these debates have their place, by themselves they prove woefully inadequate when making policy decisions. To justify the death penalty as public policy, one must be able to justify some form of it in actual practice — along with its inevitable imperfections.
When we look at the practice of the death penalty, what we find is nothing short of appalling. Troy Anthony Davis’ nightmarish odyssey through the criminal justice system serves as a case in point.
Davis sits on Georgia’s death row for the murder of an off-duty police officer. Since being sentenced to death in 1991, new developments have unfolded in his case that cast significant doubts on his conviction. Specifically, seven out of nine non-police witnesses have recanted their testimonies against Davis, with some coming forward with allegations of police coercion. This new evidence significantly weakens the prosecution’s original case, which was unable to produce any physical evidence linking Davis to the murder. At the very least, we can say that it is well within the bounds of reason to question Davis’ guilt.
So what has been the response of the justice system to these new developments? It would seem that a retrial should be in order for Davis. Instead, the courts at both the state and federal level have blocked Davis’ attempts to present his case anew in court. The most recent setback came this past March, when the Georgia Supreme Court ruled 4-3 against Davis, on the rationale that it preferred the old testimony to the new. Apparently, coerced evidence has unique authority in the eyes of the justices.
Now an execution date for Sept. 23 is inexorably bearing down upon Davis. Though a last-minute stay saved Davis’ life in July 2007, there is no guarantee that he will be so lucky this time.
Davis’ plight puts to rest the myth that the death penalty is reserved for only the most heinous criminals, those whose guilt is beyond question. Throughout U.S. history, the death penalty has been subject to error and downright abuse. Going back to the 19th century, we come across the account of the Boorn brothers, who were about to be hanged for the murder of Russell Colvin when Colvin showed up at the execution. During the Jim Crow era, oftentimes little distinguished a state execution from a lynching, as authorities would wrap up the trial, sentencing, and hanging of black defendants within a single day. And as late as the 1950s, white juries in the South were sending blacks to death row for thefts of only a few dollars.
The problems continue to this day. DNA testing and investigative reporting have revealed that a host of individuals on death row do not belong there. In Louisiana, an investigation led to the exoneration of over 25 percent of the state’s death row population. Across the country, the total number of exonerations since 1973 has reached 129.
Some say that the recent flurry of exonerations is a sign that the system works. They forget, however, that the same tools helping to exonerate prisoners on death row have also demonstrated the innocence of individuals already executed.
Further tweaking of death-penalty statutes by courts and legislatures will not bring an end to these irrevocable errors. It is folly to believe that a “foolproof” system of capital punishment is possible, as Mitt Romney once pushed for as governor of Massachusetts. Human errors are inevitable in government, as with all human institutions.
Given government’s fallibility, it follows that certain powers should remain outside of its hands. The power to execute, which provides no benefit to society in terms of cost or security, certainly falls in this category. The stakes are simply too high, the consequences of error too great, to justify the continued use of capital punishment.
As long as the death penalty remains in place, individuals like Troy Anthony Davis will find their lives unjustly put in jeopardy. Enough is enough.
Ben Jones is a graduate student in the Political Science Department. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org