View from Australia: The death and life of Troy Davis

By Jonathan Bradley

In January of 2003, two days before leaving office, the then Governor of Illinois George Ryan commuted the sentences of 167 prisoners on the state's death row. Instead of facing execution, the convicts would all serve the remainder of their lives in prison. Governor Ryan had announced a moratorium on the death penalty three years previous. This past March, the current Illinois Governor, Pat Quinn, signed a bill ending capital punishment in the state for good. 

Governor Ryan wasn't a saint — like his successor, Rod Blagojevich, he was convicted on corruption charges — and when he announced his moratorium, he wasn't even a death penalty opponent. "I still believe the death penalty is a proper response to heinous crimes," he said at the time. But during his term in office, as appeals courts overturned death sentences and activists found new evidence proving the innocence of condemned prisoners, he realised that the chance that his state would execute an innocent person was too great.

Troy Davis in 1991

Troy Davis on trial  in Georgia in 1991 (Photo: NYT)

At 11:08pm on Wednesday night, the state of Georgia executed a man who may well have been innocent. Troy Davis was killed by lethal injection for the murder of an off-duty police officer, Mark MacPhail, in 1989. Davis maintained his innocence until his death, after a long process of appeals for clemency, culminating in a request for the Supreme Court to stay his execution. It refused.

I don't know whether Troy Davis committed the murder he was killed for, but I do know there was reason to doubt that he did. Scott Lemieux explains the weakness of the case against him:

There is no physical evidence against Davis. The case relies entirely on eyewitness testimony, a highly unreliable form of evidence that is far more likely than any other source of evidence to lead to wrongful convictions. Moreover, 7 of the 9 eyewitnesses against him have recanted their testimony and claimed that their identifications were produced under the kind of high-pressure conditions that are especially likely to lead to erroneous identifications.

Further, of the two eyewitnesses who have not recanted their testiomony, one is Sylvester "Redd" Coles, who has been accused of the murder himself. There was no DNA evidence, murder weapon, or surveillance footage used in determining Davis's guilt.

"Death," as the saying goes, "is different." Even during a normal case, prosecutors are supposed to establish guilt beyond reasonable doubt, but when the state is seeking the death penalty, all care must be shown to ensure that an innocent is never subject to a punishment that cannot be reversed. Too often since 1976, when the Supreme Court permitted the United States to resume capital punishment, that care has been unapparent.

In 2004, Texas executed Cameron Todd Willingham, a man who has since been shown to almost certainly have been not guilty of the murders for which he was convicted. As a punishment, death is unevenly applied, and African Americans in particular are disproportionately sent to death row. Legal representation, which the state legally must provide, is often of low quality. African Americans are often found guilty by all white juries, tainting their convictions with the suspiscion of racial bias. Public defenders assigned to capital cases are often overworked and unable to give the amount of attention a human life deserves. 

This past Monday, Joan MacPhail-Harris, the widow of the murdered police officer, said "We have lived this for 22 years," disputing that Davis should be considered a victim. "We are victims."

She is right; she and her family are victims, and it is terrible that they have lived for the past two decades with this loss. But that does not mean that Davis cannot be a victim as well: a victim of an inattentive state failing to maintain its duty to provide its citizens with justice.

It's a distinct shame that politics has turned believers in the appropriateness of capital punishment into enthusiastic proponents of it. That Texas Governor Rick Perry can turn what should be a grave responsibility into proof of his conservative bona fides, as he did at a recent Republican debate, is evidence that capital punishment could never be the impersonal tool of societal last resort its defenders need it to be.

In 2002, after having announced his moratorium, George Ryan, the Illinois Governor, gave an address at the University of Chicago divinity school. In it, he explained his moral anguish over the death penalty:

A lot of people have called my stand courageous. Those are nice words, but they are nonsense. It was just the right thing to do. I also must decide what to do with the nearly one hundred sixty death row inmates who were convicted under our current broken system.

There is no question that there are guilty criminals on death row in Illinois. But, at our current rate of thirteen exonerations for every twenty-five death row inmates, and a fifty-percent reversal rate by the courts, the odds are as good as the flip of coin that there are also innocent men languishing behind bars.

His commission investigating capital punishment, he said, had reported "No system, given human nature and frailties, could ever be devised or constructed that would work perfectly and guarantee absolutely that no... innocent person is ever again sentenced to death." Was Troy Davis innocent? We cannot know. But he is dead.

22 September 2011