We weren’t sure if Troy Davis was a murderer, Slade Sohmer writes, so why is he dead?
Originally posted at HyperVocal.
Did Troy Davis shoot and kill off-duty Savannah police officer Mark MacPhail in a Burger King parking lot in 1989? Maybe. Maybe not. No DNA evidence ever linked him to the crime. No murder weapon was ever found. Of the nine key eyewitnesses presented to the jury at his 1991 trial, seven of them recanted material parts of their testimony. Two others didn’t witness the murder but told the jury that he confessed. Since the trial, both of them have admitted to lying about Davis’s so-called confession.
In 2007, Georgia’s State Board of Pardons and Paroles said it “will not allow an execution to proceed in this state unless and until its members are convinced that there is no doubt as to the guilt of the accused.” But on Wednesday evening, after the United States Supreme Court denied a last-ditch appeal for a stay of execution, the state of Georgia executed Davis. Time of death: 11:08 pm ET.
So what changed between 2007 and 2011? Nothing really. Words were just words. The words “there is no doubt as to the guilt of the accused” rang as hollow as our system of justice.
Davis’s advocates, of which there are many notable and prominent people, claim he was wrongly convicted. That may be the case. It also may be true that Davis did kill MacPhail. We may never know. But it doesn’t even matter. We needn’t even get that far. The Troy Davis execution shouldn’t have been about guilt versus innocence: It’s about doubt. It’s about having no doubt.
To convict a man in most adversarial legal systems, like the one we have in the United States, the prosecution needs to prove there is no “reasonable doubt” in the mind of a “reasonable person” that the defendant is guilty. But to sentence a man to death, shouldn’t there be a standard that there is “no doubt?” Then, and only then, should the death penalty debate, about whether it’s just, even begin.
You’re against the death penalty? Great. You’re for executions of people who commit heinous crimes? Good for you. Nobody will ever take away your right to an opinion on the issue. But we shouldn’t even start to debate the merits of these positions in particular cases until there is unmitigated proof that a death row prisoner is guilty, like DNA evidence, like a murder weapon, like something more tangible and concrete than eyewitness testimony, which can be notoriously unreliable, or worse, fabricated.
In the case of the death penalty, there are no do-overs. You never get a second chance to get it right. Yet states across the country have put to death innocent people before their chance to be exonerated. Consider this: At least 130 people since 1973, according to Amnesty International, have been released from death rows throughout the United States due to evidence of their wrongful convictions. If that’s not enough to give all death penalty advocates pause, nothing will.
Are we really satisfied with a system of justice in which “probably” is acceptable? Are we really willing to say that because an inmate was convicted beyond a “reasonable” doubt he or she can be executed by the state? Troy Davis should not have been released from custody, until it was proven beyond that reasonable doubt that he was wrongly convicted. But to kill him? To put him to death? That’s barbaric.