Thursday, September 22, 2011

Doubt and Death in Georgia: the Troy Davis Execution

At 11:08 p.m., September 21, 2011, the state of Georgia executed a man by the name of Troy Davis via lethal injection. Davis was 42 years old. He had been on death row since his conviction in 1989 for the murder of Mark MacPhail, an off-duty policy officer. 

I don't know if Davis was innocent of the crime for which he was convicted but I share the concerns of thousands including the Pope, a former FBI director, and and ex-president of the United States that there were serious doubts as to his guilt.

The prosecutor in the case says that he is certain that Davis was guilty. The lack of any physical evidence linking Davis to the shooting and the recanting of key testimony by alleged witnesses to the crime did nothing to shake the prosecutor's certainty. He suggests that the witnesses lied when they recanted their identification of Davis as the shooter. I wish that I had his certainty.

Instead, I worry that the state of Georgia may have executed a man for a crime which he didn't commit. I worry that the witnesses, who say that their identification of Davis as the shooter was coerced by the police who wanted to be certain of a conviction of someone for killing one of their own, are telling the truth. I worry that the man who conveniently first pinned the shooting on Davis and who has subsequently been identified as the real shooter by an eyewitness, may have had a personal interest in misdirecting police attention to Davis. I worry that the cornerstone of criminal jurisprudence, the standard in capital cases of "beyond a reasonable doubt" has been disregarded in the state's execution of Troy Davis.

I feel for the MacPhail family, but the repeated assertions by them that Davis has had every opportunity to prove his innocence, gets it all wrong. Criminal prosecution is not about the defendant proving his innocence, it's about the state proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Beyond a reasonable doubt is the highest standard of proof that must be met in any trial. It's difficult to precisely define what the phrase means, but common law and case law have carved out the following definition: 
The standard that must be met by the prosecution's evidence in a criminal prosecution: that no other logical explanation can be derived from the facts except that the defendant committed the crime, thereby overcoming the presumption that a person is innocent until proven guilty.
The prosecution stands firm in its belief that a jury of Mr. Davis' peers convicted him based on the the evidence with a certainty that was beyond reasonable doubt. Even accepting that as valid, what does it do to that conviction when the evidence presented by seven of the nine witnesses in that jury trial has been recanted by those witnesses? 

It's difficult for many of us to imagine lying because you want to escape continued questioning by law enforcement. However, innocent people have confessed to crimes that they did not commit under the stress of police questioning. Did you know that the police are allowed to lie to you while questioning you? Their goal is to get you to admit "the truth."  

I don't know what went on when those witnesses were questioned. I don't know if their subsequent recanting of testimony was the truth. What I do know is that no person should be executed by the state if there is any doubt as to that person's guilt. 

I admit that I oppose the death penalty in principal. I don't believe that the state should be in the business of taking what it cannot give. In the words of John Donne, "...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind."

Troy Davis died Wednesday night at 11:08 p.m. but we were all diminished by his death. 


Debra said...

Indeed we were all diminished by his death. God help us.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for blogging about this. I wanted to but it just makes me too sick. I can't even read the news articles about it. The last one I read was the prosecutor's weak attempt at justification.

The last time I checked their website, the Innocence Project reported 17 innocent individuals were executed -- before they were exonerated. They were proven innocent of the crimes they were executed for committing. It is a sick society that is in the business of doling out death, especially when we *know* mistakes are made. It needs to stop. State sponsored killing does indeed diminish our humanity.

You said it perfectly, everything I wanted to say but you said it much more eloquently.

jack-of-all-thumbs said...

What I really appreciated about this post was that despite its lack of overt emotion, your sadness over the failure of the process is crystal clear. And so, as upset as we are over a seeming miscarriage of justice, you remind us that we should be even more moved by the structural flaws in our system. Much appreciated.

Nance said...

"I don't believe that the state should be in the business of taking what it cannot give."

There, right there, is the piece of my own argument against the death penalty that I was missing. I can always count on you to move my thinking along and grow my grasp. My gratitude for each new post, Sheria.

Sybil said...

Thank you Sheria, I have been watching and listning to the case these last few days and feel so so sad. I agree with all that "Jack of all thumbs" has said..
I have always been against the death penalty and so am glad that so far our Government has resisted the majority who want a new vote and would vote for it...God help us all.
Much Love Sybil x

Carl said...

I am not against the death penalty; I do believe there are crimes so heinous that the death penalty is the only justice.

I will also add that these crimes are rare and the necessary standard of evidence is even rarer.

In this case, we executed an innocent man.

The problem is this case involved the killing of a police officer, so the community wanted someone to die. So the prosecutor had no choice but to seek the death penalty. The police had no choice but to find "the killer" and to find "the evidence" and the jury had no choice but to find him "guilty."

Its not much different than the recent Casey Anthony case in Florida.

We would be much better off splitting the "justice" from the "punishment." First you find someone guilty of a crime, then you have a trail to determine if the evidence is worthy of the death penalty or not.

The Edge Columns said...

Punishment does not deter crime. Education, income equity and opportunity seem to do a better job. Troy was another sacrifice on the Wild West, conservative ideological altar.

You are so right on with your post. We are diminished.