Friday, September 23, 2011

What we could have done

That the band R.E.M.'s break-up and Troy Davis' highly controversial state mandated execution would have taken place on the same day is probably an interesting coincidence to no one but me. You see, it was at an R.E.M. concert during their "Monster" tour back in 1994 that I, as a high school student, first lifted a finger to take part in a political cause-- opposing the death penalty. Someone had a booth and a petition to sign, a mailing list to be on. While my parents appreciated my interest, I doubt they were too enthused about receiving periodic notices in the mail about the death penalty addressed to me for the following decade or so.

According to Gallup, in the year I attended that concert more Americans supported the death penalty than they had before (at least, back to when Gallup started polling on the question in 1936) or since. 80% answered "yes" to the question "Are you in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder?" whereas by last year the number had fallen to 64%. And Troy Davis was executed, presumably because the state of Georgia is where a good number of those who answer "yes" to the death penalty reside.

My opposition to the death penalty, and my reasoning for opposing it, hasn't changed since the day I signed that petition-- I still believe that we as a society gain nothing from it, and we risk losing something which should always be significant: the life of an innocent. The Innocence Project, which was founded in 1992 to examine the cases of imprisoned convicts using DNA testing, has exonerated seventeen convicts from death row in eleven states. Collectively, they served over two hundred years in prison for crimes they didn't commit.  But because they had not been executed (yet), it was possible to release them and allow them to have something of their previous lives back.  Nevertheless, this doesn't appear to be a compelling thought at all for many Americans. From another Gallup poll:
However, for many Americans, agreement with the assertion that innocent people have been put to death does not preclude simultaneous endorsement of the death penalty. A third of all Americans, 34%, believe an innocent person has been executed and at the same time support the death penalty. This is higher than the 23% who believe an innocent person has been executed and simultaneously oppose the death penalty.
This result is shocking to me. I had no idea that there were so many people who grant that innocent people get placed on death row and are eventually executed, but consider that acceptable collateral damage in order to put the guilty to death. Was Troy Davis one of those innocents who was sacrificed? Perhaps-- he professed his own innocence right up until the point of execution, and there's a range of concerns with the entire course of his case. Davis' race and the circumstances of his crime raise persistent questions about whether his case could have been decided fairly:

The finality of Mr. Davis’s sentence, and the outpouring of protest worldwide, leaves in its wake more than its share of questions — many that go beyond the facts of the case to encompass fundamental issues of capital punishment. Because Mark MacPhail, the Savannah, Ga., police officer he was convicted of killing in 1989, was white and Mr. Davis, above, was black, the progress of Mr. Davis’s case over two decades widened fault lines on the death penalty and, in particular, over the question of whether a black person in the South could be guaranteed the same justice as a white one. 
A New York Times editorial refers to a series of "grievous errors" and notes that over 630,000 letters pleading for clemency were delivered to the Georgia pardon and parole board to no avail, resulting in a "tragic miscarriage of justice."  Director of the ACLU's Capital Punishment Project Danny LeBoeuf condemned the outcome in no uncertain terms: “The execution of an innocent man crystallizes in the most sickening way the vast systemic injustices that plague our death penalty system."

So here's my question: what was the rush? The alternative to putting Troy Davis to death wasn't to let him go free, to send him on his way with his old clothes back and money for cab fare. If he had not been executed we would have had the rest of his life, with him sitting patiently in prison, to decide to put him to a more obviously justified death. To analyze the circumstances of his accusation in a way that doesn't provoke every human rights organization in the country, as well as death penalty supporters like former F.B.I. director William Sessions, to proclaim the injustice of it. Someone like me who opposes the death penalty outright would still not be satisfied, but we could do more to make sure that the people we put to death are obviously deserving of it. Could we not? Is that not in the death penalty supporter's best interests, the single best defense of hanging onto such a practice?

Because after all, America is rather a stand-out in the fact that we do hang onto it. Not only does the U.S. have more of its population incarcerated than any other country in the world, we're also willing to kill them whereas no other Western democracy will do so. Just speaking for myself, I would rather die than spend the rest of my life in prison. If the options are a life sentence or the death penalty, I would opt for the death penalty without hesitation. But Troy Davis is not me, and he was not given an option. Maybe he would have preferred to spend the duration of a life sentence (or as long as it would have taken) working to demonstrate his own innocence...and maybe he would have succeeded.  I don't see what we would have had to lose by giving him the chance, and we would've had a greater system of justice and national dignity to gain.


  1. Great post, Gretchen! I also oppose the death penalty, but the only thing that would satisfy me, short of abolishing it, would be if it was only an option in cases that had conclusive forensic evidence confirming the guilt of the accused.

  2. This post led me to explore a number of death-penalty related issues. One thing that surprised me was the very direct and unequivocal death penalty advocacy from the Southern Baptist Convention. Wikipedia:

    In 2000 the Southern Baptist Convention updated Baptist Faith and Message. In it the convention officially sanctioned the use of capital punishment by the State. It said that it is the duty of the state to execute those guilty of murder and that God established capital punishment in the Noahic Covenant.


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