[Update 11:08PM Sept 21, 2011 – All avenues for appeal, clemency or sentence commutation were exhausted. Troy Davis has been executed. His last words were to ask God to forgive the people executing him.]
An example of just how irrational Americans can be at times is the Troy Davis case. Davis was convicted in 1991 of murdering police officer Mark MacPhail in Savannah, Ga in 1989. He was sentenced to death. Amazingly, his sentence has not yet been carried out,
although it looks like it will happen next month [Remember, this is an old post.].
There are very real reasons for believing that the wrong man has been convicted of this crime.
Davis was convicted based on the eyewitness testimony of nine people. Seven of those nine people have since recanted, saying that police pressured them into making statements that were untrue. There is also a very real possibility that one of the remaining two witnesses might be the person who actually killed Officer MacPhail.
Four of the jurors who served in the Davis trial believe now that they made the wrong decision, based on bad evidence, and they have written to the Georgia Parole board to say so.
The prosecutor in the Troy Davis case, Spencer Lawton, has been cited in the past for misconduct and for withholding evidence from defendants. A number of Lawton’s convictions have later been overturned, including death penalty cases.
This is the context in which Troy Davis was convicted of murder and sentenced to death.
Davis has requested a new trial. Supporters of his request include former Governor of Georgia and former President of the United States Jimmy Carter, Pope Benedict, former Georgia congressman Bob Barr and former Director of the FBI William Sessions. Both Congressman Barr and Director Sessions are supporters of the death penalty.
In most nations, a person accused of a crime is assumed to be guilty, unless they can prove their innocence. To most Americans, that sounds barbaric. In the United States, our system of justice holds that a person is innocent of any crime, until the government proves otherwise. Our system is designed to protect the innocent, even if it means that a few truly guilty people may escape punishment.
Strangely, most Americans have an irrational response to the Troy Davis case. Ask the prosecutor, the family of Officer Mark MacPhail, the Savannah Metro Police Department or the general public what they think of the case and you’ll hear something along the lines of “Why hasn’t he been executed yet? Hasn’t the MacPhail family suffered enough?”
This reaction is a perfect example of how irrational Americans can be in many situations. They are not seeking justice for the victim; they want vengeance. They want someone to be punished and, amazingly, they really don’t care that it might be the wrong person. They just want to clench their jaw, nod their head and say “serves him right; bastard got just what he deserved.”
This response makes very little sense.
First, these people don’t seem to care that the wrong man might be punished. Few of them argue that they believe the evidence supporting Davis’ conviction. Their main argument is that someone needs to be put to death, because the MacPhail family is suffering.
The fact that the family is overwhelmed with grief is not an excuse to kill people. That is not a valid argument. Nor will it assuage their grief in any way if the wrong person is executed. Anyone with any sense of morality would be horrified at the thought of an innocent person being put to death on their behalf.
Second, these people don’t seem to care that the real killer might get away with committing murder. The evidence for convicting Troy Davis – the eyewitness testimony – has vanished. There is a very serious possibility that one of those witnesses actually committed the crime.
Despite their demands for justice, most of these people seem to have no problem with the possibility that the person who actually killed Mark MacPhail might escape justice completely.
For my part, as a dispassionate, uninvolved observer of this train wreck, this is what I think.
There are very real and very strong reasons for thinking Troy Davis is innocent. This is not just some guy in prison swearing that he was framed. A president, a congressman, a director of the FBI and the Pope also think he might be innocent.
The evidence for convicting Troy Davis turned out to be bogus. If that trial were held again today, a jury would surely have reasonable doubt about the evidence and would cut him loose. It would be immoral and unjust to execute this man when there is considerable doubt about his guilt.
There is reason to believe that a different man actually killed Officer MacPhail. It would be irresponsible not to investigate the possibility. If this man is a murderer, the government has an obligation to remove him from society and to punish him for what he did.
A murderer should not be given a “Get out jail free” card, just because the police don’t want to admit to the possibility that they may have screwed up the original investigation and accused the wrong person.
Troy Davis might be innocent. There is more than enough reason to grant him a new trial. The people who support this argument have far more knowledge and experience with these matters than anyone who is likely to read these words.
If Troy Davis is put to death without a new trial, it will not be justice, it will be vengeance. It will not be an execution, it will be a lynching.