The Death Penalty and a Travesty of Justice in Georgia

Guy Benson

9/21/2011 2:36:00 PM - Guy Benson

A convicted cop killer is scheduled to meet his end in Jackson, Georgia at 7:00 pm ET tonight.  Troy Davis' heart will be stopped via lethal injection at the direction of the state, a punishment meted out for the crime of which he was convicted: The 1989 slaying of off-duty police officer Mark MacPhail.  In many quarters, Davis' fate is seen as an unalloyed good.  Given the circumstances of his case, I would argue that it is a scandalous travesty of justice.  The editors of The Nation -- with whom I rarely agree -- lay out the facts of the case:

The killing of Troy Davis would mark a devastating end to a case that inspired a global mobilization against the death penalty. Davis, 42, has faced execution four times in the past four years for a 1989 murder in Savannah, despite serious doubts about his guilt. His conviction hinged on nine witnesses—no physical evidence linked him to the crime—seven of whom later recanted their testimony. Some described being coerced by police. Others point to a different man—the eighth witness, who first implicated Davis—as the real killer. “If I knew then what I know now,” juror Brenda Forrest said in 2009, “Troy Davis would not be on death row.”

Forrest was one of several people who met with members of the pardons board on September 19 to plead for Davis’s life. Others included Davis’s nephew De’Juan, who grew up visiting his uncle on death row and whose mother, Davis’s sister Martina Correia, has been his most tireless defender, while also battling breast cancer. Davis’s more high-profile supporters range from the pope to former FBI director William Sessions, who wrote recently, “It is for cases like this that executive clemency exists.”

Sadly, this editorial proceeds to assert that Davis' conviction has been repeatedly upheld due to the respective skin colors of both the victim and his reputed killer.  The liberal magazine's editors also use the occasion of this potential tragedy to assail Rick Perry and Republican voters' "bloodlust."  Race-baiting and partisan politics sully this important debate.  If a white man killed a black police officer in cold blood, I suspect the vast majority of those same supposedly bloodthirsty Republicans would applaud the offender's execution.  Conservatives -- like most Americans -- value justice, and view capital punishment as an acceptable method for holding guilty parties accountable for the most heinous of crimes.  This is why an overwhelming majority of Americans support the death penalty.  The Troy Davis controversy illustrates why I do not.

As described above, Mr. Davis was convicted solely on eyewitness testimony -- which is notoriously unreliable to be begin with.  No physical or forensic evidence links Davis to the crime.  In this case, seven of the nine witnesses who testified against Davis have since altered or withdrawn their testimony.  Some are now fingering one of their fellow witnesses as the true killer.  Who is telling the truth?  What really happened?  The fact is that we simply do not know.  The standard for conviction in our legal system is the determination guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt."  Perhaps the threshold for execution should be even higher, but if the changed testimony of more than three-quarters of the witnesses in a given case does not cast reasonable doubt on a verdict, I'm not sure what would.

Putting one of its citizens to death is one of the gravest tasks a government can perform.  The decision to do so should never be taken lightly and should require special scrutiny because it is literally and eternally irreversible.  Since 1970, more than 130 wrongfully-convicted Americans have been released from death row.  This fact should give every proponent of capital punishment a moment of pause and profound humility.  People make mistakes.  In Troy Davis' case, several (possible) mistakes are on the brink of ending a man's life.  Is David innocent?  I have no idea.  The original prosecutor in the case still says he harbors no doubt that Davis is guilty.  Of course there's a fair chance that he is responsible for the murder of Officer MacPhail in a Burger King parking lot more than two decades ago.  There's also a fair chance that he is not.  Should the state of Georgia roll the dice on this question, merely to uphold the sanctity of what appears to be a flawed jury verdict?

People of faith believe that the true murderer -- whether it's Davis, or someone else -- will face ultimate justice before his Maker one day.  Before arranging and hastening that meeting, our justice system has a sacred responsibility to ensure, to the greatest extent humanly possible, that an innocent's life is not extinguished because of preventable human error.  I happen to believe that those of us who proudly carry the pro-life banner must oppose the intentional killing of innocents wherever they exist -- be they in the womb or sitting in a death row prison cell.  Mr. Davis should not be set free -- I've seen no evidence that conclusively proves his innocence -- but in the name of justice, his life should be spared.  There is simply too much doubt surrounding his guilt. 


UPDATE - Erick Erickson responds to my post with some thoughts and additional details about the case.  Many of the points he raises are compelling, and as I've said on Twitter, if I had to guess, I'd say that Davis is probably guilty.  But, in my mind, probability doesn't rise to the level of sufficient cause to execute a man, which is an irreversible act.  There are no do-overs here.  Some doubt still lingers over the fact that 7 out of 9 witnesses have changed their stories since the trial, and that there was a snafu with the chain of evidence and packaging of physical evidence (shell-casings) in the case.  Again, my contention is not that Troy Davis is an innocent man.  It's that there's enough uncertainty about his guilt that the state should err on the side of life here -- even if Davis himself didn't do so himself in 1989.