The Freak Show: Justice, Rest In Peace

Troy Davis was executed last week. It would be a routine execution, except it has gotten worldwide attention because seven of the nine witnesses recanted their testimony, corroborating his claim that he is innocent, yet the Supreme Court wouldn’t delay the execution so it could be looked into further.

In fact, no less a prominent law enforcement official than William Sessions, a former federal district judge in Texas and FBI director under Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, stated he felt there needed to be a reexamination of the case.

Davis was convicted of murdering Mark MacPhail, an off-duty Savannah police officer who was shot to death while coming to the aid of a homeless man who was being assaulted in a parking lot, back in August of 1989. The murder weapon was never recovered, and no physical evidence was found linking Davis to the crime. He has consistently maintained that another man at the scene was responsible for the shooting.

Although most of the witnesses have changed their story, Davis’ attempts to secure a retrial have been continuously rebuffed by the courts. In a hearing in June of 2010, Davis’ attorneys were allowed to present evidence of his innocence to a federal judge. In statement after statement, witnesses from the original trial said they had been coerced by police to implicate Davis in the shooting, or had lied in order to secure lenience for their own cases.

But the judge overseeing the hearing, William T. Moore Jr., decided that in order to overturn the original jury verdict, Davis needed not only to cast doubt on the evidence, but to provide “clear and compelling” proof of his innocence. He declared that while the state’s case “may not be ironclad,” Davis failed to make a showing of “actual innocence” and thus should not be granted a new trial.

Many supporters of the death penalty joined in calling for a delay, making no judgment as to whether Davis is guilty or innocent, but calling for justice to be served. Former Republican Congressman Bob Barr wrote, “Imposing an irreversible sentence of death on the skimpiest of evidence will not serve the interest of justice. The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles did not honor the standards of justice on which all Americans depend by granting clemency. In doing so, it will allow a man to be executed when we cannot be assured of his guilt.”

I am not one of those liberal, anti-death penalty zealots. There are some crimes so heinous I think it’s called for, although I would consider a life at hard labor to be a worse sentence than death. I don’t even know if Troy Davis is innocent. I only know that we should spare no effort to make sure of his guilt before we put him, or any man, to death. We have to get to a place where the only people executed are those who are absolutely, 100 percent guilty, with proof so positive there can be no doubt whatsoever.

With DNA testing now being easier to administer, we have seen the exoneration of more than 15 death row inmates since 1992. That’s less than one per year, but how many innocent people being executed is too many? In my view, even one is too many. If it happened once every 100 years, I think it is not acceptable. To put even one innocent person to death for something he didn’t do cannot be tolerated. What if it was you, or a family member? If a police officer came to your house, and you bore a resemblance to someone who committed a serious crime, who’s to say it couldn’t lead to a conviction? After all, we have proof that innocent people do get convicted.

A recent Supreme Court case has actually shifted the debate in the other direction. By a 5–4 margin, our current right-leaning Supreme Court ruled that a prisoner does not have a constitutional right to demand DNA testing, even at his own expense. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “A criminal defendant proved guilty after a fair trial does not have the same liberty interests as a free man.”

Statistics show incorrect convictions are not as unusual as one might think. There have been 273 post-conviction DNA exonerations, which includes non-death penalty cases. The Court, in denying a stay of execution to allow for further investigation, may have followed the letter of the law, but we need to be better than that. We need be extra cautious. I don’t believe the writers of the Constitution intended for inflexibility when it comes to matters such as these.

I don’t know how these men can live with themselves when they’ve allowed people to be put to death while there’s a chance they may be innocent. It’s something we must change. The goal should be justice, not conviction at all costs. It’s unconscionable that we have reached this point and made the situation worse instead of better. Politicians want to be seen as tough on crime, so they don’t rock the boat. But anyone with any ethics at all should want to save an innocent life.

Davis’ final words were reported to be as follows: “I’d like to address the MacPhail family. Let you know, despite the situation you are in, I’m not the one who personally killed your son, your father, your brother. I am innocent. The incident that happened that night is not my fault. I did not have a gun. All I can ask is that you look deeper into this case so that you really can finally see the truth. I ask my family and friends to continue to fight this fight. For those about to take my life, God have mercy on your souls. And may God bless your souls.”