Monday, July 16, 2007

Will Georgia Execute an Innocent Man?

The state of Georgia is scheduled to execute Troy Anthony Davis tomorrow for the crime of murdering a police officer. There's just one problem: there is substantial reason to believe that Davis is innocent. With zero physical evidence to tie Davis to the crime, the prosecution relied on the testimony of 9 eyewitnesses who identified Davis as the perpetrator. Seven of those nine have recanted their testimony, giving sworn affidavits that they were pressured into identifying Davis. Additional testimony has come to light from witnesses who heard another man — in fact, one of the 9 eyewitnesses — confess to the crime after Davis was convicted. However, in Georgia, mere proof of innocence is not enough to overturn a death penalty: Troy Davis received a "fair trial" by the standards of the state of Georgia, and therefore they intend to execute him, whether or not he actually committed a crime. It's not without precedent: in the late 1990's California Governor Pete Wilson said in a similar case, point-blank, he didn't care whether or not the condemned man had actually killed anyone; he received a "fair trial" and was sentenced to death, and that was that.

In general, I oppose the death penalty, with only the narrowest of exceptions: there are a tiny number of criminals in history who posed such a potent threat against society that no prison walls could contain it. The obvious examples are deposed dictators whose fanatical followers will stop at nothing to liberate their leader and allow him to continue his crimes against humanity. Saddam Hussein is a clear case in point, as was Nicolae Ceau┼čescu in Romania in 1989. Murder is a heinous crime, and murder of a police officer is especially heinous, but it does not pose an ongoing threat that cannot be contained by prison walls. There is only one civilian murderer whose death penalty I supported, and that is Clarence Allen: even though he was a crippled, empty shell of a man when he was finally executed, he reached out from prison to execute witnesses to his earlier murder (for which he was imprisoned for life without parole) in an effort to have his conviction overturned.

Troy Anthony Davis poses no such threat to society. If he poses any threat at all, it is entirely contained within the walls of Jackson State Prison. The evidence that his defense counsel was incompetent is overwhelming: one of his court-appointed lawyers was subsequently disbarred! The evidence that the eyewitness testimony is at least highly suspect is also overwhelming. But we mustn't appear "soft on crime," even if it means having the state murder an innocent man without even giving him a truly fair hearing. It is wrong for the state to wreak vengeance, but it is all the more tragic for the state to wreak vengeance on the wrong person.

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