Thursday, September 22, 2011

Unjustifiable Justice

I followed with interest last night the execution in Georgia of convicted murderer Troy Davis.  Not morbid interest, but more like disgusted interest.  I am the first to admit that I am no expert on this case. I am sure that there are facts that I am unaware of, but even those facts would not change my opinion that Mr. Davis' execution is a societal failing.

Davis was convicted in 1991 for the 1989 murder of a Savannah, GA police officer and was sentenced to death.  Twenty years ago!  For twenty years this man languished in a legal limbo, using the various avenues at his disposal attempting to have his conviction overturned or his sentence commuted. Yesterday he exhausted the last of his appeals.   

The Troy Davis case has increased exponentially my skepticism regarding the purpose of  capital punishment.  As a younger man I accepted the concept of vengeance. I saw the world as black or white, right or wrong, guilty or innocent.  Experience has changed my oversimplified view. Whereas I once parroted the views of others whose opinions I valued, I have learned that in life curiosity and skepticism are wise companions.

According to the news, Davis was convicted of murder despite there being no physical evidence, no DNA, no gun that placed him at the scene or tied him to the shooting.  Additionally, several witnesses who testified against him have since recanted their testimony, saying that their statements had been coerced.  In view of these facts, I think the authorities should have viewed his conviction with some skepticism, yet the Georgia Department of Corrections rejected his offer to take a lie detector test, the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles rejected his plea for clemency, the Supreme Court denied his motion for a stay of execution, and the White House issued  a statement saying that "it is not appropriate for the President of the United States to weigh in on specific cases like this one, which is a state prosecution."   In a case such as this one, where "reasonable doubt" existed, would it have not been more prudent to proceed with caution?  After all, Davis had sat on death row for twenty years.  Would another few months have made a difference while authorities reviewed the facts of the case and interviewed those who recanted their testimony?    

I am not liberal when it comes to crime but the pedestal upon which the capital punishment advocacy has placed its argument–deterrence–seems poorly built to me.  Murder has not been eradicated from society so I can only surmise that fear of death is not a consideration for those who kill.  I understand the logic behind the belief that those who take life should forfeit their own, but our legal system is not sufficiently perfect to make it an errorfree operation.  I find it beyond ironic that some of the same people who are strident in their opposition to abortion are among the most vocal advocates of capital punishment.  How does that make any sense?  Is not a life a life, regardless of how that life is conducted? 

Texas Governor and Presidential candidate Rick Perry is one such person.  Writing in the September 15 edition of The Washington Post, Robert P. Jones reported that "Perry’s identification as a strong supporter of “a culture of life” and what he called the “ultimate justice” of capital punishment, however, raises some potentially thorny questions about the meaning of being “pro-life.” In campaign season, the question is whether American voters, especially voters who identify as “pro-life,” are going to raise concerns about why Perry’s position doesn’t represent what some Catholic theologians call “a consistent ethic of life,” opposition to both legalized abortion and capital punishment. A quick foray into public opinion, however, seems to indicate that Perry may be facing little pressure on this front for at least two reasons."  Opinion polls indicate that Perry's view is fairly widely-held.


If just one innocent person has been wrongly convicted and executed, then the death penalty, in my opinion, should be abolished.  Sadly, the fact is that many persons have been wrongfully executed.  Yet, Ol' Sparky continues to serve. Perhaps a parallel scenario will illustrate the tragic absurdity of this. 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is tasked with determining the safety and efficacy of new drugs that are submitted for approval. Such approval comes only after years of research, development, and clinical testing convince the FDA that the new drug offers the promise of life extension and other benefits that cannot be gotten anywhere else. If, during clinical trials, heretofore unknown side effects are discovered that result in patient mortality, the FDA halts the trial and rejects the drug application.

The death penalty, through the concept of deterrence, also offers the promise of life extension by protecting potential victims from future crimes committed by convicted murderers or by causing those who might be inclined to murder to reconsider.  Convicted murderers are the "patients" in the clinical trial of the death penalty.  When an innocent person dies as the result of imperfect jurisprudence, are not the legal system's flaws exposed as fully as are a drug's flaws in the drug approval process?  Should not the trial be halted so as to protect future "patients" who may be harmed by it?  Of course it should.  Why then isn't it?  Because vengeance is the real motivation behind the death penalty, not deterrence.

If vengeance is the reason, then the death penalty's rationale is questionable.  If life is a gift from God, then is it not up to God to determine when that life has run its course?  Certainly, those who murder overstep their bounds in this regard, but do we not compound the error by killing those who kill, especially when the decision to execute comes after thoughtful deliberation by supposedly enlightened people? 

While life imprisonment imposes on society certain economic consequences, should justice have a price?  It seems to me that life in prison is both a worse punishment for the convicted and a better alternative for society. How many convicted people have later been exonerated and given back their freedom?  Thousands.  How many convicted and then executed people have gotten back their freedom when their innocence was later discovered?  Zero. 

Criminals owe a debt to society. If the cost of housing and feeding a prisoner is $50,000 per year, I see nothing wrong with putting these people to work in the service of the state.  They might not like it and critics will claim that such work does nothing to rehabilitate but, if given a choice, I'll bet death row inmates would choose roadwork over lethal injection, especially if they are innocent of the crime for which they were convicted.