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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.

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