By Bill Press
Tribune Media Services
Shortly after 11 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 21, Troy Davis was killed by agents of the state of Georgia.
He deserved to die, said the state, because he shot and killed Savannah police officer Mark MacPhail in a Burger King parking lot the evening of Aug. 18, 1989 — a crime for which he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death.
The only problem is: It now looks like he didn’t do it. No murder weapon was ever recovered, so Davis’ conviction was based on eyewitness accounts. Yet, in recent months, seven out of nine original witnesses — several of whom claimed police coercion — voluntarily came forward to recant their testimony. And three members of the jury that sent him to death row back in 1989 now say that, based on new evidence, they made a mistake.
Surely, in this great country, with a system of justice based on the principle that guilt must be established “beyond a reasonable doubt,” even for sending a man to prison for a month, no state would execute someone about whose guilt so many serious doubts had been raised. Yet that’s exactly what happened. The Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles ignored the fact that almost the entire prosecution case against Davis had collapsed. They rejected petitions for a retrial from, among many others, former President Jimmy Carter, Pope Benedict XVI, former Republican Congressman Bob Barr, and former Republican FBI Director William Sessions. On Sept. 20, they refused to grant clemency to Troy Davis. The next day, Georgia most likely killed an innocent man.
Even though support for the death penalty has slowly declined over the years, it still earned the support of 64 percent of Americans in 2010, according to Gallup’s annual Crime Survey. And its popularity among conservatives was most apparent during a recent GOP presidential debate. No sooner had moderator Brian Williams mentioned that 234 criminals so far had been executed on Rick Perry’s watch as governor of Texas than the audience at the Reagan Library erupted in applause. For his part, Perry insisted he didn’t lose any sleep over having overseen the execution of 234 individuals, because he was certain every one of them was guilty.
Now here’s what I find interesting, and totally contradictory. Have you noticed? Those conservative tea partiers who support the death penalty so strongly are the very same anti-government forces who claim that government can’t do anything right. Isn’t that strange? They don’t trust the government on schools, immigration, health care, taxes, regulation, environment, or anything else. Yet they are 100 percent confident the government never makes a mistake when it comes to the death penalty. The only thing the government does right, in their warped worldview, is: kill!
Of course, they are dead wrong. And not just in the case of Troy Davis. Take the Innocence Project of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University. Since its founding in 1992, the project has, through DNA testing, established the innocence and won the release of 273 prisoners in 34 states and the District of Columbia. Seventeen of them were on death row.
In March, Illinois became the fourth state in the last two years — following New York, New Jersey, and New Mexico — to ban the death penalty. Republican Governor George Ryan had banned capital punishment in 2000 after Northwestern University students proved the innocence of more than a dozen inmates on death row. A total of 16 states now have no death penalty.
And yes, even in Texas, mistakes have been made. In 2004, for example, Perry refused to stay the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, who had been sentenced to death for arson, even though experts later testified that the evidence used to convict him was junk science. Based on its worldwide research, Amnesty International estimates that 5 percent to 11 percent of all death row inmates are not guilty. Which means that, out of 152 people executed under George W. Bush and (now) 235 under Rick Perry, Willingham’s not the only innocent man Texas has killed.
Bottom line: If you can’t trust the government to do anything else right, it’s totally naive and monumentally stupid to think it always gets the death penalty right. And any death penalty mistakes are irreversible.
Ironically, the state motto of Georgia is “Wisdom, Justice, Moderation” — three virtues sadly lacking in the case of Troy Davis.
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