This season on The Newsroom, as is their wont, the show covered the time period around the 10 year anniversary of 9/11. For the uninitiated, the HBO show features the exploits of a cable news channel by taking true events and viewing them through the lens of multiple fictional characters. While the 9/11 focus was certainly intriguing, I found myself haunted by a subplot involving Troy Davis, an inmate on death row in Georgia scheduled for execution just after that fabled 10 year anniversary.
Troy Davis is not a fictional character and today is the 2 year anniversary of the state sanctioned murder of Troy Davis.
On September 21, 2011 at 11:08 PM, the state of Georgia murdered Troy Davis with a drug used to put down horses. They did this despite the recantations of seven eye witnesses, the lack of any physical evidence tying him to the crime, and requests for clemency from as near as 3 former jurors on his case to as far away as the Pope in the Vatican.
For a person like myself–one who adamantly opposes the death penalty–the case of Troy Davis is an easy one to defend. Not only was there plenty of room for reasonable doubt, there was the very real possibility of genuine innocence.
However, last night as I stayed up far too late in a vain attempt to drown my sorrows over the memory of the state sanctioned murder of one of my fellow Americans, I started to think of how do I defend my anti-capital punishment position when the defendant is clearly guilty of the most heinous of crimes?
Then I thought of John Allen Muhammad.
On November 10th, 2009 John Allen Muhammad was carried to the death chamber and executed by lethal injection at the Greenville Correctional Facility in Jarratt, Virginia. Muhammad was better known as the “DC Sniper,” whom with the help of his accomplice Lee Boyd Malvo, was responsible for a reign of terror that resulted in at least ten deaths in and around the nation’s capitol. Muhammad and Malvo would stake out a distant position and wait for some innocent victim to cross their rifle sights, whom they would then fire upon. Their actions were vile, cowardly, and disgusting. After they were caught on October 24, 2002 they were convicted of 1st degree murder and sentenced. Malvo received life in prison, and Muhammad was sentenced to death.
For someone like myself–who believes the death penalty should be abolished–Muhammad is the absolute worst case scenario when it comes to defending my opinion. A deranged, unrepentant killer like Muhammad tests my position like few others could. Like I said, he’s the worst. And while I am very sensitive to the desires of the victim’s family members, I will continue to take the stand that capital punishment has no place in modern society.
First, the adjudication of the death penalty disproportionately disfavors minorities and the poor. In a country where 74% of the population is white, 1774 of the 3125 inmates on death row are non-white. Over 56%. It’s not hard to ascertain why. Minorities are still economically disadvantaged in the USA compared to the white majority. Often, the difference between life and death is whether the accused can afford to hire a decent attorney or not. Public defenders are much like probation officers: Overworked, underpaid, and with far too many clients to serve effectively. Does anyone seriously think that OJ Simpson would have beat the double murder charges he faced in California had he not been able to buy his “dream team” of lawyers? Former Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black once said, “There can be no equal justice where the kind of trial a man gets depends on the amount of money he has.” Ain’t it the truth.
Many would argue that the death penalty is a deterrent to others. However, there is literally no accepted scientific evidence to support this. Murder–whether it be of the cold-blooded variety or a crime of passion–is not a rational act. For one to be deterred by the fear of being put to death, one would have to be in their right mind. I think it’s fair to say that sociopaths, psychos, and those in a blind rage do not qualify as rational. Therefore, how could it be a deterrent?
It is also irrevocable. Once the punishment has been handed out it cannot be reversed. This is particularly unfortunate for those who may later be proven innocent. As just about anyone can tell you, our justice system is not perfect. Since 1992 DNA evidence has exonerated at least 18 death row inmates. And DNA evidence is available in only a fraction of capital cases. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that if there were 18 innocent people awaiting execution then there are certainly more on death row now who simply lack the appropriate scientific evidence to set them free. I would submit that if there is only one person who fits that description then there are far too many.Some might also say that it’s not fair to ask for tax payer dollars to go towards the health and housing of murderers and rapists. While I certainly understand that point of view, I wonder if those that hold that opinion know that it typically costs more to put someone to death than it does to keep them alive. This is due in large part to the lengthy appeals process that our justice system provides for the convicted. Maybe those same people think we should further limit the appeals process to make it a less expensive process. However, I can think of at least 18 people since 1992 who would probably disagree.
As I said before, Muhammad is the most difficult argument to make for someone like me. His was the very definition of an open and shut case. There is no doubt that he committed these awful, heinous murders, and that he is indeed deserving of severe punishment. So how can I advocate for his right to live (although not to live as he might choose)? Well, because for me, it really isn’t about him, it’s about us. In the end I believe a policy of capital punishment debases us as a people. I know many Christians point to “An eye for an eye” as it is written in the Old Testament. I would counter that Jesus himself was a victim of a wrongfully adjudicated death sentence (remember he was both poor and a minority). Not to mention, after Jesus came, the Old Testament became just that…old. You see, I always view Jesus as a rather forgiving sort and I find it hard to believe that he would want us to take away someone’s opportunity for ultimate forgiveness by executing them. Who’s to say that an inmate couldn’t find redemption after twenty years in prison? Should they not be afforded the opportunity?
Now I know that if God forbid, someone that I love were to be murdered that I might feel differently. While I would hope not, I think it’s quite possible that if the authorities apprehended the guilty party and the court sentenced the offender to death, I would be more than willing to pull the switch myself. But then what would that say about me? That I would be willing to trade my own humanity for a hollow serving of revenge? And in turn, what then does the continuing existence of the death penalty say about us? The answer, I fear, isn’t pretty.
Of course, I understand why the family members of the slain officer in the Davis case would be less forgiving than I. That type of grief knows no bounds. However, there may be a man walking around somewhere who is responsible for the death of that officer, their son, relative, loved one. It would be a fine thing for the family and the memory of that officer if that person were brought into custody and held responsible for the death of Officer Mark MacPhail.
It will do nothing for Troy Davis.
At 11:08 On September 21, 2011, Troy Anthony Davis was murdered by lethal injection with a drug used to kill horses. There are no more appeals for him. There is no further hope. He is gone. And he ain’t coming back.
Troy Davis was not a fictional character.