Day of Justice, Day of Shame: The killing of Troy Davis

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I do not know for certain that Troy Anthony Davis is not guilty of killing Mark MacPhail, a Savannah Georgia cop. But I do firmly believe that there is more than reasonable doubt of his culpability to say he is legally not guilty, and I am not alone in thinking this. The other people who think this include Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter, dozens of members of congress, more than 500,000 petition signers, and … perhaps most significantly … seven of the nine witnesses who testified against him who have now changed their stories, and three of the original jurors who voted guilty. The case was based primarily on eye witness testimony, and if even one of the jurors at the time felt he was not guilty he would not have been convicted.

On the other side of the issue we have several people and institutions who feel that Troy Davis needs to be executed later today. This includes various courts to which his appeal was brought, the Georgia State parole board, and the family of the slain police officer, who say they need Troy to die in order to close the book and have some peace.

Yes, indeed, “justice” is being done here because that is how the justice system works. It is a system, and it has its checks and balances and its way of going slowly enough that it is more fair than it otherwise might be, and so on and so forth. But, it is also a biased system and a very imperfect system. The bias in the system is beyond the need for argument … it is established fact. The imperfection in the system is easily demonstrated. These are two of the most important reasons, among a half dozen or so reasons, that the death penalty should be eliminated in the United States. You can’t have a system in which reasonable doubt matters and appeal is possible, in which nefarious or subconscious bias or imperfection in the process is acknowledged, in which you also kill the defendant at some point along the way.

It is especially poignant to see that two young white middle class Americans will be released from an Iranian jail about the same time Troy will take the needle. Not that Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal should not be released or that they have anything to do with it. It is poignant for another reason. If you were an Iranian government official looking at the Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal case, the assumption that these to guys are spies would be natural. As a person who has traveled a fair amount in or near bellicose regions, and actually met spies along the way (I even spent a bit of time in prison with a spy in the Eastern Congo) I was never closed to the idea, while in the mean time virtually every American hearing of their fate simply knew that the were innocent of these charges. Young American men hiking on the border of a hostile state could not possibly be spies! Meanwhile, in downtown Savannah Georgia, if the police pick up a young black male for some crime or another, there are a lot of people who will assume he is guilty. Or, worse, not care if he is guilty. It’s the inner city. Young black males are the criminals. A crime was committed. Close enough.

Notice that in the first paragraph above I did not say that I was certain that Troy Davis is innocent. I didn’t say that because I couldn’t care less. It is not relevant to the present situation. What is relevant is that had he been given a fair trail … if our criminal justice system worked for him the same way it is supposed to work for everyone … he would not have been convicted then, and he certainly would not be slated to die tonight. I’m sure he’s guilty of something. But so are you, dear reader. And so am I. The difference between Tory Davis and you and me is that he is receiving justice in a system of justice that is broken, and we are, at the moment, being ignored. I don’t dream much, and I rarely have nightmares, but when I do they are always one of two recurring themes. One of those themes is that I’ve been sentenced to death. I did actually find myself in front of a makeshift firing squad once, and I think the dreams started after that. It is a very very bad feeling in real life or in a nightmare. I don’t think I’ll be sleeping tonight.

Murder is the responsibility of the state. No one else is allowed to do it. When the state does it, it should do so more reluctantly than it seems to like, and more carefully than it seems to do.


Asha, I want to thank you for reminding me to think about this today.

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4 thoughts on “Day of Justice, Day of Shame: The killing of Troy Davis

  1. Perhaps it is because I grew up in Canada, where the last executions took place in 1962 (when I was 5) and was abolished in 1976, but I have always considered state executions to be unconscionable. I have been reading since I was about 13 years old about wrongly convicted people.

    The one that struck me the strongest was the story of Steven Truscott, who was tried and convicted, at age 14, as an adult for the murder of his classmate. From the beginning, there were serious questions about his guilt, and many people felt he was railroaded primarily because someone had to pay and he had been the last person seen with her. He had originally been sentenced to death, but that commuted to life imprisonment (he was released on parole in 1969). It took until 2007 before he was finally exonerated.

    There are constantly examples of people having their convictions over turned either by additional evidence being found, or through errors or deliberate actions by police, prosecutors, or expert witnesses. In Canada,these people have the possibility of redress, even if it takes many years. With the death penalty, no redress is possible.

    The simple question is “How many innocent are you willing to kill?”. Of course, if everyone executed is guilty, that is a moot question.

  2. WRT the state killing people for crimes, I have several (pretty much independent) thoughts:

    – It probably doesn’t matter that much in the American criminal “justice” system, because by the time anybody’s served more than a year or so of their sentence (if that), they’re somebody else. Whoever they were before is gone, and what’s left is usually a monster we really don’t want infesting our society. Especially if they were innocent: that would probably make them into worse monsters, because any notion of justice they started with will have been demonstrated false. (And if they’ve survived as good people, it’s probably because of a very strong religious faith.)

    – The chance of a false conviction for a crime is one of the risks a person takes in life, just as the chance of getting hit by a car. It’s usually a good thing for society, especially the government, to take steps to minimize such risks.

    – It’s human nature to look for a scapegoat, and most people stop thinking about guilt vs. innocence once the scapegoat has been chosen. My own experience talking to random people (coworkers, etc.) is that they usually go through the “convict the scapegoat” process about the time the scapegoat is charged with the crime. After that, efforts to achieve a just evaluation of the facts are considered “gaming the system”. I’ve found that the more heinous the crime, the more people are opposed to any thought that the charged scapegoat may be innocent, because “it was such a horrible crime”. One hypothesis is that there is a genuine psychic pain associated with having a heinous crime without a named scapegoat.

    WRT the hikers in Iran, I was pretty sure they were spies, and still am. If not, the rule above applies: the risk of getting grabbed and falsely accused of a crime is part of the normal risk they run. Which, if I understand that part of the world, was pretty darned high otherwise. Especially near a contested border. Hard for me to find much sympathy.

  3. Greg,

    That is an excellent piece.


    You are confused. There is no evidence for some of the things you assert and no connexion between the things you put together to create an effect. Or, more shortly, citations needed.

    I am not convinced because I just see someone who is buying in to the mythology created by a criminal justice system which knows it is broken but prefers self-justification and heretical religious ranting to the more important task – repair.

    Repair would, after all, require a bit of (christian?) humility and clearly that is too much to ask, especially in Georgia, especially in a recession!

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