Troy Davis was executed last night in Georgia for the murder of an off-duty police officer 20 years ago. Was he guilty? A jury said so originally. There was little or no actual physical evidence against Davis. He was clearly there and an array of eye witnesses fingered him as the shooter. Since then, however, at least seven of those witnesses have recanted, most also claiming they had been pressured by police to testify as they had.
Davis’ case had gone through numerous legal wranglings, getting three temporary stays, bunches of hearings but never the ruling he was seeking, and likely should have received: a new trial. Even last night, the U.S. Supreme Court held up the execution for a few hours but came back with no further stay, or comment as to why, either. Davis was finally given lethal injection and was declared dead at 11:08 p.m.
But was he guilty? I don’t know, and that’s the problem.
I am, without much doubt, a death penalty supporter. I don’t live in a rose-colored world where all people are redeemable and any actions can be forgiven. Some people and certain acts are so heinous, so despicable that those who perpetrate them should forfeit their right to continue to draw breath. It’s not about deterrence or vengeance to me, the world is simply a better place with fewer evil people in it. But if we’re going to exact the ultimate penalty on someone, we need to be damned sure. Even beyond a reasonable doubt isn’t sufficient. To end someone’s life, the standard needs to be beyond any doubt. Anything less is tantamount to murder.
Here we have a man convicted and eventually executed not with smoking gun physical evidence but with eye witness testimony. It has long been understood that eye witness claims can be among some of the most unreliable evidence; people mis-remember important details or worse yet, their memories can be manipulated by savvy third parties. The fact that no fewer than seven eye witnesses in Davis’ case have since changed their tune, and that many of them claim police pressure should cause us all pause. There is no smoking gun here, and many of the witnesses who testified aren’t even certain at this point. Davis was convicted on the strength of these witnesses. If they aren’t certain, how can any of us pass the reasonable doubt threshhold necessary to justify ending his life?
For me, this case comes right on the heels of reading about the similarly disconcerting execution of Cameron Todd Willingham in Texas under the seemingly disinterested eye of current GOP darling Rick Perry. If you haven’t heard about this case, you should definitely read all the sordid details here. Willingham was convicted and put to death for the murder by arson of his three children. The problem here is that the scientific evidence used at trial was, to be polite, half assed. Several examinations of the evidence, both before and after Willingham’s execution found that there was no credible evidence to support the assertion that arson even occurred. The obvious implication is that you can’t very well murder anyone by arson if you didn’t actually burn the place down.
A report stating this actually reached Gov. Perry’s desk in time to stop the death sentence from being carried out but it appears that he never bothered to even read it. Worse yet, a few years later, a committee was investigating the case once more and Perry used his political authority to stifle the investigation, and stop a noted fire investigation authority from testifying about the fraudulent nature of the arson claim used to convict Willingham.
Yet still worse, the man Perry appointed to kill the investigation, John Bradley, now a Williamson County, Texas district attorney was recently called out in another questionable prosecution. In this one, Bradley fought DNA testing that later, done under court order, pointed clearly away from a convicted man who has been in jail for 24 years for the murder. Bradley also, likely illegally, kept key witness testimony from the defense that called into question the state’s case.
Despite an almost scientific consensus that evidence supporting arson in the Willingham case was faulty at best and outright fraudulent at worst, he was put to death in 2004. But was he guilty? Again, I don’t know. And that bothers me.
Both of these cases, along with many others, have one thing in common: a total unwillingness of the people we trust to have this authority over life and death to question the results when it clearly needs to be. Rare is the case that someone freed from jail with DNA evidence available years later didn’t have to fight through a gauntlet of government and prosecutor stonewalling to even get the testing done. Sometimes, as in the case of the recently freed West Memphis Three, even with exonerating DNA, it can still be difficult to find justice.
DNA testing in 2007 showed the West Memphis Three’s innocence, but they still sat in jail for four more years before finally being released, and even then they weren’t completely cleared officially and were forced to give up any rights to seek financial compensation for the 17 years they wrongfully spent in prison. By the way, the supposed leader of the group, Damien Echols, spent that time on death row.
But what can we reasonably expect when we have a sitting Supreme Court Justice, Antonin Scalia, who says things like, “Innocence is no bar to upholding a criminal conviction.” And here I always thought innocence was a pretty important part our criminal justice system.
As I said, I support the death penalty when it’s called for, and I do believe there are times it is, and people who have clearly earned such an inglorious result. My doubts now are whether our justice system has the capacity and integrity to shoulder the awesome responsibility of handing out such a sentence. When we have judges who will fleetingly dismiss innocence in favor of a flawed jury verdict, prosecutors who will manipulate evidence and try to block even common sense actions like DNA testing, police officers willing to pressure and coerce witnesses and accused alike, and Governors who care more about their political posturing and poll positions than whether or not they’re about to kill an innocent man, let’s just say I have my doubts.
Have we ever executed an innocent person in this country? At this point, I have to say without a doubt, yes we have. And that, to me, is not acceptable. I believe in the death penalty but I believe it takes certainty to invoke it. Our system, as it stands today, does not and cannot provide it consistently enough to assure we’re not executing the innocent. Until we fix that, there should be no further executions in this country.