Thursday, September 22, 2011

Guilt and innocence

Troy Anthony Davis was executed by the State of Georgia last night.  His crime was murder.  To the very end, he proclaimed his innocence.  An uncomfortable number of witnesses retracted their prior statements implicating him in the crime.  His case has garnered national attention as an example of either justice being served or an innocent man being put to death.

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.

3 comments:

MRMESQ said...

I agree with your point David. I have never been a true supporter of the death penalty, and would describe my view until relatively recently as indifferent. Saying that someone deserves to die does not necessarily mean that the state should be the executioner. Those are two different things. I've grown very uncomfortable with the state executing individuals through the justice system, and I think we should end the practice. I do not believe our society benefits from killing, and when the inequity of the administration of the death penalty is taken into account, I think it cannot be justified. I don't necessarily mean the racial aspects of it's application, since Texas just executed one of James Byrd's killers, rather it's somewhat arbitrary application. For me, the final straw in my turning against the death penalty was Brian Nichols. If we aren't going to execute him, we should not execute anyone.

Ps-Iosifson said...

Agreed, "beyond a reasonable doubt" is not a reasonable standard for the death penalty.

The death penalty should only be used if and when there is absolutely no question the person was guilty. The default should always be that we commute the death penalty if and when there is any doubt, which is different from declaring the person innocent and releasing them from prison.

As a Christian, I'm also not sure how we can support the death penalty when there is any chance at all the person may repent, and keep repenting.

One could make a case for the death penalty if it could be shown it was an actual deterrent to crime. That is, choosing a bad option (death penalty for one) is better than choosing the worst option (unchecked death and suffering for many). Unfortunately, it's been shown time and time again there is no deterrent effect with the death penalty - at best it helps police and prosecutors to pressure criminals into confessing for leniency or taking a deal.

Agreed, "beyond a reasonable doubt" is not a reasonable standard for the death penalty.

The death penalty should only be used if and when there is absolutely no question the person was guilty. The default should always be that we commute the death penalty if and when there is any doubt, which is different from declaring the person innocent and releasing them from prison. Add to that the cheers for executions and it's clear to me that people simply want revenge and closure at any cost (even the death of an innocent man), and that isn't Christian (or remotely wise).

Jim said...

well, said. It is true what you say about the death penalty being done poorly in this country.