Thursday, September 22, 2011
Guilt and innocence
My view on the death penalty has soured quite a bit due to the fine work of the Innocence Project. It seems to me that if we put as many innocent people on death row as we undeniably do, then we at least run the risk of putting innocent people to death but for the work of anti death penalty advocates. And even given their work, we cannot say that everyone who receives the death penalty is guilty of their crimes.
Troy Davis, however, is somewhat of an exception to this view in my mind. While I do think there is enough reasonable doubt in his case to at least commute the sentence, I am also aware that evidence was excluded by the exclusionary rule (and rightly so) which directly implicated him in the crime. Mr. Davis' last words to the family of the man he killed were "The incident that night was not my fault. I did not have a gun....I did not personally kill your son." Given what we have seen from the remaining evidence, I think this statement is probably true on a technical level. And yet Mr. Davis was there while a homeless man was pistol whipped and an officer intervened to stop it and was shot for his troubles. In a legal sense, whether Mr. Davis pulled the trigger or not is immaterial. If he is not a murderer in a direct sense, he is likely guilty of felony murder at the very least.
My problem with the Troy Davis case is not that I believe he is "innocent." I think nothing of the sort. My problem is we just executed a man where a lot of evidence indicates he wasn't the trigger man, and the trigger man is apparently still running around in society. Some may think Mr. Davis' mere presence warrants the death penalty, and I suppose if we are going to have a death penalty, that is a reasonable position to take. But I am unconvinced. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and even being too morally bankrupt or cowardly to intervene to stop a beating and murder, should not be a capital offense. Putting my view simply, I am convinced Troy Davis is innocent of a capital offense. But I do not think he is innocent. He should be in jail.
But he's not. He's now dead, killed at the hands of our justice system. And the more I learn of how that system metes out its "justice," the less I think the death penalty is a good idea. I don't have a particular moral or philosophical objection to it. I just think we do it poorly in this country. Thomas Jefferson once said "better that ten guilty men go free than for one innocent man to languish in prison." If that is true, how much more is it true that it is better for an innocent man, or even a man who is guilty of something but not of the crime he is accused of, to languish in prison than to be put to death?
May God have mercy on Troy Davis' soul, and ours. Lord have mercy.