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The Death Penalty

In Death Penalty, Philosophy, Politics, Troy Davis on September 22, 2011 at 11:54 am

The recent Troy Davis case has reminded me how much I loathe the death penalty. As simple as it might sound, I’ve always been of the school of thought that “two wrongs don’t make a right.” I also believe that taking a human life is the highest wrong that can be committed on the planet and that such a wrong should be severely punished–just not with more death.

I know the argument that says, “well [insert criminal name here] took a life so he gave up his right to live,” but I just don’t buy that. Sorry to get all cliché-ridden here, but an eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind.

I also know that the family who was victimized by a murder suffers intensely, but is the answer really to make the family of the perpetrator suffer as well? Multiplying suffering on the planet doesn’t really seem like the way forward.

There’s also the case that it costs money to keep murderers in prisons which have become too comfortable–more like motels than correctional facilities.

That may be the case, but then isn’t the solution to overhaul the prison system? Make it more punitive? Make inmates participate in some kind of work program whereby they produce a commodity for society? Work to eliminate bias and corruption in the judiciary? Or should we just kill prisoners because it’s cheaper? (Which, by the way it’s not. According to 2003 legislative audit in Kansas, death penalty cases were 70% higher than standard cases; in Tennessee, death penalty trials cost 48% more; and in Maryland death penalty cases cost $3 million each–three times more than a regular case ).

I think what really gets me foaming at the mouth like a prison-yard dog on this issue is the innocence question. Seven of the nine witnesses involved with the Troy Davis case recant their testimony and no gun was ever found and still we execute him? Maybe he did it and if so, he was already being punished–he is in prison, after all. But what would the harm have been in reopening the case and hearing from these witnesses who changed their minds? What happened to reasonable doubt? If he was still found guilty, then vengeance–I mean justice–could still have been meted out another day.

Michael Mears of Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School summed it up nicely: “The courts want finality in these trials. They don’t want (them) going on forever and ever. And that’s understandable. The problem in a death penalty case is that if you don’t get it right, then someone’s going to die. And they’re going to die for a crime they might not have committed.”

Did we get it right with Davis? Can we ever be sure that we get it right? The statistics from The Innocence Project (and now we get to the real point of this post) make you think not. Since 1992 they’ve used DNA and other evidence to exonerate 273 people who were sitting–wrongly accused–on death row. What if just one of those people became the victim of state-sanctioned murder? After all, isn’t that what killing innocent people really is? And how many innocent people have died as a result of botched court cases, coerced confessions, and biased judges and juries?

In a statement on their website today about the Davis case, The Innocence Project had this to say:

The Georgia Bureau of Investigations has conceded that the ballistics evidence used against Davis was unreliable, and one of the Jurors who sat on the case said that if she had known about that she would not have voted to give Davis the death penalty. Seven of the nine witnesses who identified him as the shooter have recanted their testimony. One of the two witnesses who maintain that Davis was the shooter is thought by many to be the real perpetrator and has made admissions to others that he committed the crime. The other remaining eyewitness had been up for twenty-four hours straight at the time he observed the shooting and reported on the night of the crime that he “wouldn’t recognize [the shooter] again.” Yet two years later, this witness identified Troy Davis in an in-court identification that required him to simply identify the only African-American sitting at the defense table. Misidentification was a factor in 75% of the 273 DNA exonerations. In 38% of these mistaken identification cases, multiple eyewitnesses misidentified the same person.

For nearly 30 years The Innocence Project has looked into the crazed eyes of the death penalty machine and snatched hundreds of people from its bloodthirsty jaws. It’s a good organization doing good work. I think it deserves your attention and, if you are motivated, your support.

Hmmm, $3 million to try a death row case or a small little donation to the Innocence Project? By now I think you know which one Mike likes.

  1. OK…I’ll be first.
    This is a horrible day in America. Can’t believe with the amount of people behind this…and all the doubt…that it wasn’t stopped. He should have never been on death row to begin with.
    I don’t believe in death row for an-eye-for-an-eye cases.
    However, I do believe in it for the cases of psychotic monsters out there that are proven offenders and serial killers though. Norway is a perfect example. 76 people…mostly children…hunted down and killed. He admitted it. There’s video footage. There’s a 1500 page manifesto. There’s Facebook entries. He was even brought back to the island and gave investigators a reenactment of the day. I see no reason why we should have to pay to keep this monster in a jail cell for the rest of his life.
    100% agree that there needs to be a change in the prison system. It’s not working.
    I just read this article the other day about how more and more states are cutting prisoner work programs…http://www.corrections.com/news/article/29224-prison-work-crews-cut-in-cost-savings-move

    • He was guilty by law. Like it or not. But I choose to remember the one person who was murdered who surely did not deserve it… Officer Mark MacPhail was shot and killed while working an off duty security job at a bus station. He was shot when he responded to the cries of a homeless man who was being robbed and pistol-whipped.The robber (Mr. Davis) shot Officer MacPhail underneath his vest and then again in the head as he fell. Compare this death to lethal injection and it’s clear the Barbary.

  2. Yes, I agree. The death penalty is barbaric and prescribes the out for blood philosophy to our society Yet, you wouldn’t believe how many people in america are blood thirsty animals. America can sometimes be like the modern day Rome. A perfect example is when people cheered when they asked Rick Perry about the the unbelievably amount of people that have been executed in Texas.

  3. As a police officer, I see the justice system and the prison system and how it works every single day. I’ve chosen to look at the Troy Davis case as objectively as possible, and not get caught up in the fact that the victim was, like me, a police officer. And when I look at the facts of the case, the amount of doubt surrounding the conviction makes it clear that killing Davis was the most irresponsible thing they could have done. But then again, it is Georgia, and in the American South things like reason and fact often fall by the wayside.

    Now, I have mixed feelings about the death penalty in general. I can tell you that the vast majority of prisoners think their stretches in jail are a piece of cake. There is very little attempt to rehabilitate prisoners, and very few prisoners are capable of being rehabilitated. That is because the path to recitivism and the criminal mentality starts when the criminal is still in diapers. There are people who go through the system once or twice, and apart from those few errors live normal, ‘law-abiding’ lives, but the majority of the people you see in jail are, as we say in the business, frequent flyers.

    This is just my opinion, but I believe peoples’ behavior is shaped when they are children, and if you are raised by trash you are much more likely to grow up and inherit the trashiness of your parents. No work programs or education intitiaves can change the inherent makeup of a great percentage of people.

    So what is the answer?

    If, like Mike says, you believe that taking a life for a life is wrong, well there isn’t much you can say to refute such an opinion. You are entitled to feel that way, and in some cases I can even agree with that. The problem here is in the case of heinous, violent and senseless acts of murder, rape, pedophilia, and torture.

    What is justice? And what is simply vengeance? Are the two mutually exclusive, or are both concepts intertwined?

    Make no mistake, the concept of vengeance comes straight out of the Bible. ‘Eye for an eye’ is lifted from no other book. While I myself am extremely suspicious of religion in all its forms, I am no stranger to the desire for vengeance. Call it human nature; call it too much exposure to American culture, but there it is all the same. When I see certain crimes my instincts demand certain punishments.

    (Not to turn this post into a discussion of faith, but as an avowed Atheist, I am fully aware that no punishment/reward exists after we die, so I find it pretty amazing that most proponents of the death penalty in this country are Christians. Don’t Christians believe in the fairy-tale lands of Heaven and Hell and the equally outlandish concept of eternal suffering for mortal sins? If these Christians are so sure people will receive their due punishment from god, why are they in such a frothing bloodthirsty hurry to execute everyone?)

    The Troy Davis situation, as I understand it, was no pre-meditated murder, but something that occurred as a result of a struggle. The victim was off-duty, presumably out of uniform, and there are far too many doubts in the evidence for this to be a sure thing.

    But what do you do with the couple in NYC a few years ago who beat their two year old to death for crying? (And I mean tortured the kid; this wasn’t some 4am exhaustion induced shaking; this was something far more unspeakable….I crumpled up the newspaper and had to go calm myself down somewhere).

    In my own jurisdiction, not three weeks into my tenure as police officer in the summer of 2003, a young man flew into a rage while arguing with his baby’s mother and threw their 18 month old daughter out a seven story window. He then panicked and ran outside and picked up the kid and drove her to a hospital. (She survived with only broken ribs, careening off branches to land upon a section of turf no bigger than a welcome mat between concrete floor and steel benches…….so help me it is the closest I’ve ever come to believing in angels). He received 25 years in state prison, but I think he should have been hurled off a roof. I seriously think that. Because I saw the kid’s mother fall to the ground and shriek in a paroxysm of grief that was terrible to behold. I felt this woman’s pain, even as I scanned the area with a flashlight for a fallen friggin’ baby, all the time saying to myself “I should have stayed at Applebees.” They weren’t some quick polaroids flashed on the news between the faces of two grinning idiot anchors on channel 7… they were real.

    Things like this…..the stuff that makes your blood curdle…..what do we do with these people? How can you have a pulse and not want to see these people drawn and quartered?

    Okay, here’s the problem.

    What kinds of murders and rapes are done by truly psychotic people with deep-seated mental illnesses? How do we know the difference? Who is an authority that can truly tell the difference and mete out executions accordingly?

    Counter-point; let’s say you have an appalling murder – I stress children and/or women as victims; even animals. The weak and the old, the young and the innocent; these are the types of crimes that deserve the harshest punishments. Let’s say there is no history of mental illness, or evidence of such, and now let’s say there is DNA evidence; video evidence, or a confession.

    Is there really a problem with executing someone who rapes and kills a child?

    I say save these extreme punishments for only the worst of the worst. Don’t dole out executions to people like Troy Davis, where there’s doubt; that is quite frankly pathetic. Take the time to differentiate between cases; these are peoples’ lives we’re talking about.

    But: when there is NO DOUBT. Even if it is one out of a hundred murder cases. When there is NO DOUBT – I say forget lethal injection. Bring back hanging. Public hanging. You torture a child; rape a girl and dump her body? I think you should die in pain, quivering and shitting yourself, in front of the victim’s family. Jeez, give them that small satisfaction, even though it won’t bring back their loved one. I understand the inherent futility in the death penalty; I know it does not deter crime. But there it is again; my thirst for vengeance – my connection to my animal past maybe, I don’t know. An evolutionary flaw. But it is how I feel.

    Now, what of the cost of appeals, of death row? What of the cost of life imprisonment? People speak of it all being a waste of the taxpayers’ money. This is ridiculous. This is like if your brand new Mercedes was being torched and you cried because you’re favorite baseball cap was burning on the passenger seat. If you’re going to cry about government wasting taxpayer dollars, there are FAR worse travesties to focus on than the cost of keeping prisoners alive. I can’t beleive I’m saying this, but its true. After the bailouts and the war expenditures, how can you get upset over penal costs????????????

    My meandering post can best be summarized as follows: Troy Davis’ execution was wrong. Most uses of the death penalty are wrong, but some could work for me. The justice system is a corrupt, ponderous beast that can’t get out of its own way and needs to be seriously overhauled.

    I guess what it comes down to is; we live in a world where people visit horrors upon their fellow man; there are no punishments (i.e. heaven/hell) beside the ones we dole out in this life ourselves, and sometimes I just want to see people pay for it; really pay for it. But the big counter-point is ; be careful how we go about this. The ideal in my thinking is fine, but the problem is in a world of corruption, bad motivation, and other foolishness, ideals can never truly work in the real world.

  4. Jeez, those Franco boys can write! Thanks for the well-reasoned arguments.

    Here’s where I stand: if someone harmed my husband, or my nieces or nephews, or really, anyone else I love, I would want to tear them apart with my bare hands. Vengeance is great.

    But where would that leave me? No better off than I was before.

    And I firmly believe the state should not be in the business of killing its citizens. I understand the argument that only those whom we’re 100% certain committed a heinous crime should be executed. But how would that criteria be established? I think most jurors who have voted to sentence a convict to death were pretty damn sure the guy did it. And, as we have seen, they were at least occasionally wrong.

    So yeah — lock ’em up for life, and make things as unpleasant for ’em as possible. The death penalty is not the answer.

  5. A few items I’d like to address on this.
    First, no one should ever look at the Death Penalty argument in financial terms. Basing your decision on cost is probably the most amoral thing a society can do. Also, I question the whole ‘humans should never take another humans life’ argument. We do it every day with the consent of the majority of citizens; be it ‘just’ wars (I assume we would all agree Word War II would fall in this category from the Allies side) or just allowing a police officer to carry again is a tacite agreement by society that taking a life if necessary is acceptable (A tazer would do just fine for any none lethal engagements). Even the ‘eye-for-an-eye’ argument isn’t really accurate when addressing the Death Penalty as most murderers do not get the death penalty – or even life in prison.

    The real rationale for the Death Penalty is a certain need for closure (for the victims and society as a whole) but more a sort of perceived sense of collective control by society when regarding certain situations that imprisonment just doesn’t fulfill. This is precisely why the Death Penalty is used against certain cases where society as a whole tends to be left feeling the weakest and most vulnerable. Cases against serial killers and people who kill our protectors (cops) fall into this category.

    And for me, this reason makes the Death Penalty an acceptable form of punishment in our society. The issue with Troy Davis isn’t really about the Death penalty anyway. It’s about justice being perverted and not properly served in his case (if he was innocent. I have no idea as I haven’t been following it).


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