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Troy Davis execution: Did the death penalty deliver justice?

A last-ditch appeal to the Supreme Court pushed back Troy Davis’s execution by several hours, but in the end, Mr. Davis died by lethal injection Wednesday night in a prison in Jackson, Ga.

“I am innocent,” were his last words to the family of Mark MacPhail. “I did not have a gun.”

Mr. Davis was convicted of the 1989 murder of Mr. MacPhail, a Savannah, Ga,. police officer.

Troy Davis
Troy Davis

For thousands around the world, Mr. Davis’s death marked a grave injustice, given vexing questions and new doubts about his guilt.

But while many saw the execution as symbolic of a fallible justice system, and an immoral punishment, others found their faith in the system reaffirmed by an abundance of court and executive reviews that, time after time, let the verdict against Davis stand.

The Davis case is but one in a long series of death penalty cases that push individual states to debate the morality, legality, and efficacy of the death penalty.

This week alone, the US Supreme Court ordered stays for two men in Texas scheduled to be executed, while a third, Lawrence Brewer, was executed Wednesday night for the dragging death of James Byrd near Jasper, Texas, in 1998. Alabama has an execution scheduled Thursday.

Davis was convicted in 1991 for the shooting death of off-duty police officer MacPhail, who had come to the aid of a homeless man being beaten near a Savannah, Ga., Burger King. A jury of seven blacks and five whites found that Davis had shot a man earlier in the evening and used the same gun to fire into MacPhail’s face and chest, killing the young father of two before he had a chance to draw his weapon.

The murder weapon was never found and defense lawyers cast doubt on a ballistics test that linked shell casings at the scene to casings found at another shooting for which Davis was convicted.

Since the verdict, seven of nine witnesses in the case changed or retracted their accounts, and new witnesses have pointed to the possibility that another man at the scene fired the weapon. But Federal District Court Judge William T. Moore said those new statements amounted to “smoke and mirrors” to obfuscate the original verdict.

On Tuesday, a Georgia clemency board, for the fourth time, declined Davis’s request to commute the sentence to life in prison. The Georgia board has commuted three other death row sentences in the last decade.

President Obama, through his press secretary, said he had no jurisdiction to intervene in a state court matter, although experts say executive power under the Constitution includes the power to commute sentences.

One problem, legal analysts say, is courts are vested in jury verdicts, which can be fallible. Doubts alone are rarely enough to overturn a finding of guilt, but in cases like Davis’s, where there is impassioned belief of innocence, it “raises doubts about whether the legal system can tolerate this potential error in allowing a person to be executed,” says James Acker, a criminologist at State University New York in Albany.

But the Davis case also had powerful emotional impact that made him a cause célèbre among human rights activists working to end the US death penalty. A black man being executed for the murder of a white man in the Deep South raised longstanding and deep-seated concerns about racial inequities in the justice system.

Davis’s execution stood in sharp contrast to the execution the same day in Texas of Mr. Brewer, a white man convicted and sentenced to death for a heinous hate crime against a black man.

“Can we have the death penalty and actually avoid the possibility of killing innocent people?” writes Rashad Robinson, executive director of the activist group Color of Change. “In a criminal justice system that routinely misidentifies black suspects and disproportionately punishes black people, black folks are more likely to be wrongfully executed.”

Death penalty opponents often point to the fact that over 130 death row inmates have been released since the 1970s given new evidence, including DNA. But proponents of the death penalty use the same data to argue that those numbers validate what Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist once called executive branch “fail-safes,” such as clemency boards, that prevent the execution of the innocent.

President Jimmy Carter said the Davis execution should result in the abolition of the death penalty in the US. “If one of our fellow citizens can be executed with so much doubt surrounding his guilt, then the death penalty system in our country is unjust and outdated,” Carter told the AP.

Sixty-four percent of Americans support the death penalty to punish egregious murder, according to a 2010 Gallup survey.

Whether the Davis case has an impact on the use of the death penalty in the US in the future is an open question. Already, the number of executions in the US has been steadily dwindling over the past 15 years, even in Southern states where capital cases are most common.

Meeting with activists before his execution, Davis reportedly said, “You have a choice. You can either fold up your bags after tomorrow and go home, or you can stand and continue to fight.”

Some still see the uproar over Davis’s execution as “manufactured” emotion smartly packaged by activists and the media to build opposition to the death penalty.

“We have consistently won the case as it has been presented in court,” said Spencer Lawton, the original prosecutor in the Davis capital murder case. “We have consistently lost the case as it has been presented in the public realm, on TV and elsewhere.”

Comments (5)

  1. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 09/23/2011 - 07:06 am.

    It is remarkable to watch the difference in response to the execution in Georgia and Texas.

    With all the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” over the cop killer, the silence about Texas was interesting?

    Facts are that more whites are executed than blacks, so trying to spin this issue into a stereotypical “blacks in the South” issue won’t fly.

    The death penalty, properly applied, is an effective response to murder. The murderers in Georgia and Texas will never get the chance to commit another one. Two people that demonstrated the inability to live in civilized society are no longer a problem.

    Case(s) closed.

  2. Submitted by Christina Metzger on 09/23/2011 - 07:55 am.

    Was “clemency” (mercy) offered in the Troy David ~ v ~ Officer Mark MacPhail trial? Mercy, evidence, justice. Powerful words – but what do they mean? Normally, I would agree with the death penalty for heinous crimes. This murder could fall under such a category. I was unaware of this trial, until the night before Troy Davis’ execution. I then sent out an e-mail “plea” to nearly 100 e-pals to pray for his soul & if he were innocent, that they’d stay his execution. Whether or not he truly was innocent, I don’t know, despite the fact that said execution did take place on September 21, 2011, at 11:08 pm. As for “iron-clad evidence” – that simply wasn’t there. There was no DNA at the scene of the crime linking Davis as a suspect. Nor was the murder weapon ever found. People in “high positions” – even President Clinton & Pope Benedict – maintained his innocence. As to so-called “witnesses” at the scene – why did they recant their previously alleged accusations against Troy? Consider, too, that Mr. Davis denied his right to a last meal, preferring to spend time with friends & family. Lastly, he maintained his innocence right up to the last minute, & instead of requesting vengeance upon the family who lost their loved one that fatal night, he requested that God would have mercy upon their souls… The last issue of “justice”. Was it “served” for all? An “eye for an eye”? Did not Jesus tell us to love even our enemies? Whether or not you can truly love someone who (supposedly) killed your love one – or even if you saw them with your own eyes killing them – does the “justice” of killing that person bring back your loved one? Of course not! So, I truly do not know how people can find “peace” in having such retribution! What if someone truly did murder your loved one; but was truly repentant of said crime? Many have been able to forgive & even love that person, despite their despicable crime. In the case of Troy Davis, because of the “reasonable doubts” that were brought to light, in my opinion, it would have been better for him to have remained in prison without parole, than to have executed a (very likely) innocent man. Think about it…execute, or exonerate?

  3. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 09/23/2011 - 10:38 am.

    Mr. Harris (#1), the difference in the reaction to the execution of Troy Davis and the execution of Lawrence Brewer – the white man just executed in Texas – was based on the fact that, unlike with Davis, there wasn’t any doubt about Brewer’s guilt.

    Brewer – an avowed white supremicist – was one of the men that offered a ride to a black man named James Byrd, and then drove him out to the country, beat him, urinated on him, and then tied him to the back of their vehicle and dragged him to his death. Just before his execution, Brewer stated “[a]s far as any regrets, no, I have no regrets. No, I’d do it all over again, to tell you the truth.” Davis, who was convicted on the testimony of witnesses of questionable credibilty, many of whom have recanted their testimony, maintained his innocence right up until his death.

    If you know the facts of the two cases you would recognize that there is nothing “remarkable” or “interesting” about the differing reactions. Why wouldn’t people react differently to the execution of a guilty man and the execution of a man who was quite possibly innocent? To use your words – you say that the death penalty, properly applied, is an effective response to murder. The difference is that with Brewer it was properly applied, and with Davis it wasn’t.

    While you are correct “facts are” that more whites are executed than blacks, a far higher percentage of blacks are executed. African Americans make up 12 percent of the U.S. population, yet have accounted for 35 percent of executions since 1976.

    And while there is clearly racism involved in the application of the death penalty, the problems with the death penalty go well beyond race. Damien Echols (one of the “West Memphis Three” and a white man) was convicted of murder in 1994 and sentenced to death. After serving 17 years on death row, he was set free after DNA evidence showed that he did not commit the crime.

    Echols is just one of dozens of death row inmates who were later set free because of wrongful convictions. For Cameron Todd Willingham, the determination of his innocence came too late, and he was executed for allegedly starting a fire that resulted in the deaths of his family members.

  4. Submitted by James Hamilton on 09/23/2011 - 10:38 am.

    My concern is not with the execution of the guilty for crimes such as that committed by the man executed in Texas the other night. My concern is that we are likely to have executed innocent people and are likely to do so in the future.

    There are no true ‘fail safes’. There are only ways of reducing the odds of executing an innocent. Not all crimes result in DNA evidence which can convict or clear a suspect. Our appellate mechanisms are not intended to be and do not operate as means of reviewing juries’ decision, but to review the manner in which a trial was held, to determine whether the process complied with the law. Clemency boards are as subject to human error as juries. Those governors with the power to commute a death sentence are, first and foremost, politicians. Gov. Rick Perry, who by all accounts (including his own) has no concerns over the results of the execution-prone Texas system, is a glaring example.

    My question for proponents of the death penalty is simply this: how many innocent people are you willing to kill in order to obtain revenge on the guilty? 1 out of 1000? 1 out of 100? 1 out of 10?

  5. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 09/23/2011 - 02:39 pm.

    @ Bob Harris, “the silence about Texas was interesting” What silence? That you weren’t listening doesn’t mean there was silence. Byrd’s family in fact asked that the execution be stopped.

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