On Wednesday night, after repeated attempts for clemency, Georgia executed Troy Davis; a man convicted in 1989 of killing an off duty police officer. Up until now I had never heard of Troy Davis but because the evidence against him was sketchy at best and seven of the nine eye-witnesses recanted their statements a strong consensus has arisen that there is doubt that Davis committed the crime. Consequently, a whole group of people have become very public about the issue of his guilt or innocence.
I’ve been reluctant in the past to discuss the topic of capital punishment. Partly because I used to believe it was an effective deterrent for heinous crimes and partly because I used to believe it was just punishment for certain particularly heinous crimes. Even now I regarded recounts of the demise of Osama bin Laden with satisfaction and I won’t shed any tears for the white supremacist that Texas executed on Thursday night. This man drug a black man behind his truck for several miles until; as one officer put it, the body was unrecognizable as human. While I would argue that dispensing with bin Laden was more of an act of self-defense (he likely would have perpetrated further acts of terrorism just by remaining alive), there are other instances of serial killers, war criminals, and similar societal deviants that you would have difficulty justifying to me that execution was unnecessary or unjust.
But several years ago I became acquainted with the advocacy for abolishing the death penalty through the singer/songwriter Steve Earle. Earle has written several haunting songs on the matter such as ‘Ellis Unit One‘ (formerly death row in Huntsville, Texas) which appeared in the movie ‘Dead Man Walking’. Steve points out that capital punishment is fraught with all manner of issues. For example it has a racial component in that it tends to discriminate against black males disproportionately. There’s also a social component in that it tends to discriminate against the poor who can’t afford an OJ Simpson style defense. Some argue that execution is cheaper than life incarceration even though there are studies that dispute that since most executions involve years of appeals. Here are some arguments for both sides of the debate. I’ve come to think Steve Earle may be right.
We have a system of law that operates under the premise known as the Blackstone principle which states “better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer“; hence, innocent until proven guilty (Obviously, there are counter arguments to this principle including one Chinese version that asks, ‘Better for whom?’). Probability, however, dictates that occasionally we are likely to get one wrong. Could Troy Davis have been that one? If so, would that make the State of Georgia guilty of murder? Is there a difference between an execution and murder? What is the difference between state-sanctioned killing and random individual acts of murder? Or declared acts of war for that matter?
If we take the religious commandments that arguably form the foundation of American philosophy at face value, ‘Thou shalt not kill‘ is pretty unambiguous. That means that state-sanctioned execution is basically two wrongs that make a right: an eye for an eye, if you will.
Many countries, such as the nations of the European Union, have abolished the death penalty. But sixty percent of the world’s population still lives in countries where killing is often routine. China holds the distinction for the most executions followed by Iran, North Korea, Yemen and the United States. Yes, the United States is in the top five in the world for executions; a dubious distinction in my humble opinion. Africa is another example but not for sanctioned executions. Being killed there remains a risk of just breathing. I could go into philosophical viewpoints on whether or not this is just a natural occurrence, like wildebeasts on the African plain; arguments that killing for humans is just a Darwinian holdover but I’ll just presume that most rational people agree with the first commandment from a strictly self-preservationist perspective whether they are Christian or not.
In this particular day and age we’ve seen that execution is not a deterrent. People have demonstrated that they are willing to sacrifice their own lives for an ideology. They strap twenty pounds of C4 to their bodies with a one way switch in their hands (appropriately called a dead man switch) and walk into busy marketplaces. At the end of the twentieth century we saw the rise of school massacres where students walk onto campus and distribute their personal pain to as many people as they can before taking their own lives. The term ‘going postal’ entered the vernacular for disgruntled employees who vent their frustrations on fellow co-workers. Many assassins of the past century have just been mentally unbalanced. I haven’t even broached such unfathomable atrocities as the extermination of whole races like the Nazi movement, Rwanda, or the Croatian conflicts.
Incarceration may be expensive and for some an insufficient dispensation of justice (read: revenge) but if Troy Davis was indeed innocent then it’s entirely possible that his blood is on our collective souls and more than likely that we will have the same problem again in the future. How much is that piece of mind worth? Capital punishment is a complex moral and ethical conundrum but I do know a way to render the argument for executing an innocent person moot. The only way to be absolutely certain that we never execute an innocent person is not to execute them at all.
- Roger Smith: It’s Too Late for Troy Davis, But It’s Not Too Late for Us (huffingtonpost.com)
- Troy Davis… Just or Unjust? (capitolhillgang.com)
- Troy Davis: The ultimate penalty (guardian.co.uk)