Let me begin by stating that I’m against the death penalty. I think that it is the most barbaric form of justice, unproven as a deterrent, and shows just how unenlightened we are as a society. However, since I seem to be in the minority, I will respect the apparent will of the people while addressing this issue. Rather than make this a diatribe, I will try to stick to discussing capital punishment as it relates to the recent execution of Troy Davis.
Troy Davis was accused of killing a Savannah, Georgia police officer in 1989. In 1991, he was convicted of the murder and sentenced to die. Beginning in 1996, many of the witnesses began to recant, most claiming they were coerced by police investigators to testify against Troy or face charges on parole violations, even as accessories. Three men even stepped forward to claim that another man who was present at the time, Sylvester “Redd” Coles, confessed to the killing.
As a matter of fact, the officer who was murdered was trying to break up a fight between Redd Coles and a homeless man. Redd Coles went to the police department the day after the killing to accuse Troy of both the beating of the homeless man and the shooting. The only physical evidence in this case that was deemed somewhat conclusive was that a shell casing found at the crime scene, not by investigators, but later, by some other homeless man, matched that of casings recovered from another crime scene. Earlier in the day, prior to the shooting, a passenger in a car had yelled obscenities at Troy and a friend. Someone shot a gun into the car, and the passenger was hit in the face. What the ballistics expert could not say with certainty was that the bullet that killed the officer came from the same gun.
I don’t know about you, but to me it appears that there is enough cause to doubt Troy’s guilt. Sure, the appeals process rarely went Troy’s way. In the end, his conviction and sentence were upheld, but that doesn’t mean justice was served. We know all too well that cops have rushed to judgement. We know all to well that prosecutors have defended their verdicts regardless to innocence or guilt.
Now, I wasn’t there. I doubt that anybody reading this article saw what happened. But this is not about Troy Davis’ guilt or innocence. This is about the burden of proof required before we kill a man. Ours is not the worst legal system in the world, innocent until proven guilty and all that. We accept that all that is required to convict someone in this country is that he or she be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. However, in light of Troy’s execution, we need to ask ourselves if that is enough. I don’t believe so.
In this day and age of DNA testing, it is not impossible to have concrete evidence of a crime and who committed it. Considering the preponderance of studies that point to the disproportionate administration of the death penalty against the poor and minorities, we should be doubly careful that those we put to death are truly guilty of the crime. Most likely is not good enough.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia believes otherwise. In 2009, he said:
“This court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is ‘actually’ innocent. Quite to the contrary, we have repeatedly left that question unresolved, while expressing considerable doubt that any claim based on alleged ‘actual innocence’ is constitutionally cognizable.”
Basically, that means that it doesn’t matter whether or not you committed the crime. What matters is that your trial was fair enough, according to state laws and the Constitution. As of this writing, I don’t know how the Justices voted in Troy’s final plea to stay his execution. I would put money on Scalia’s vote. I hope this shows you how far we have to go in order to make sure that we cannot, in good conscience, allow others who think like Scalia onto the highest court of the land.
It’s bad enough that our country the worst incarceration rates in the world, by far, with 1 out of every 100 adults in jail, according to a 2008 study–this despite a steady drop in crime over the past few decades. Now we have to add the murder of possible innocents to our tarnished reputation.
I know, Troy Davis is likely not the first potentially innocent person to be wrongly executed in our country. So many have been acquitted by DNA tests that it’s hard not to imagine others slipping through the cracks. Troy, however, is the highest profile case in my memory. As such, if he ends up being proven innocent, he will serve as a martyr to those who would abolish the death penalty. Until then, I can only hope we make sure that if we do murder someone for a crime, that we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the person we are murdering actually committed that crime. Is that too much to ask?