Our criminal justice system is supposed to be about making a person who has been harmed whole. It is supposed to correct an imbalanced situation, by enforcing that the person who has caused harm be held accountable for his or her actions. In the case of Troy Davis, is that what we’ve done?
Tonight, at 7 pm (EST), Davis is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection. He was convicted in 1991 for the murder of Mark MacPhail, an off-duty Savannah police officer, despite that fact that there was no physical or DNA evidence linking him to the crime, and that no weapon was found on him.
Additionally, since that time, several witnesses have recanted or changed their testimony, calling into question whether Davis is the right man to hold accountable, and whether his execution is, in fact, justice. Yet, after nearly two decades on death row, Davis’ final clemency plea to the parole board was denied, leaving the civil and human rights advocacy community frustrated and outraged.
WATCH REV. AL SHARPTON’S COVERAGE OF THE TROY DAVIS CLEMENCY DENIAL:
“There is too much doubt to proceed with an execution,” said NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Jealous said in a statement released yesterday. “No amount of deliberation will change the fact that the case against Mr. Davis has too many holes.”
From Pope Benedict XVI and Archbishop Desmond Tutu to former President Jimmy Carter and those who participated in 300 protest rallies in cities such as Hong Kong, the effort into persuade Georgia’s criminal justice stakeholders to grant Davis clemency has swept across the globe.
While many of our elected representatives have been uncharacteristically silent on this issue, even those who support the death penalty have raised concern over the level of doubt in this case.
Former FBI Chief William Sessions called for clemency, citing “pervasive, persistent doubt.” Bob Barr, a former federal prosecutor and four-term Republican congressman from Georgia, has urged the board to grant clemency for Davis as well, stating that “I am a longtime supporter of the death penalty…But imposing an irreversible sentence of death on the skimpiest of evidence will not serve the interest of justice.”
Still, we wanted to hear more from more of our Congressional leaders on this issue because Troy Davis’ case was always about more than just Troy Davis. His case was a test of whether our justice system is able to hold true to a fundamental principle and right in this country that a person is innocent until proven guilty. Unfortunately, that principle was stripped from this case when the Georgia Supreme Court decided that Davis’ appeal would require that his legal team establish “no doubt” that he is innocent. In other words, he could be convicted of murder and sentenced to death on questionable evidence, but his appeal must establish his innocence without any doubt whatsoever.
The truth is that Davis was never “innocent” — he was guilty until proven innocent. In the book, Presumption of Guilt: The Arrest of Henry Louis Gates and Race, Class, and Crime in America, Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree writes, “African Americans still bear the burden of a presumption of guilt and are disproportionately subjected to an arbitrary use of police force and abuse of power, even when they are accomplished, law abiding citizens.”
In short, all of us are affected by assumptions of culpability — be they implicit and unconscious or explicit and intentional. Without the power to re-frame the narrative — in the court, in classrooms, in the office, or on the streets — the presumption of guilt informs not only how others view us, but also how we view ourselves.
What then, does this signal to the international community?
“In America, a man can be executed even when the former head of the FBI says there is persistent doubt about his guilt,” Benjamin Jealous told The Grio.
Of Davis’ case, London’s The Guardian wrote that there was “overwhelming evidence indicating that his conviction for murder is unreliable,” and The Irish Times noted that Davis’ case was “one of the most hotly contested death row cases in the US in recent years.”
This week sympathetic protesters in France and Italy took to the streets of Paris and Rome to advocate on Troy Davis’ behalf and this morning the European Union issued a formal statement on the case, in which they said: “Serious and compelling doubts have persistently surrounded the evidence on which Mr. Davis was convicted, and these were recognized by the appeal judges. The European Union therefore calls for his execution to be urgently commuted.”
While it remains to be seen how the international community will fully interpret this egregious use of capital punishment, a leading lesson is that it is too difficult to correct potential errors in the administration of the death penalty for it to continue as it does. Many have advocated for a moratorium on the death penalty, and if there were ever a case that justifies the continuation of this advocacy, this one is it. Georgia’s criminal justice leadership found no reason to reverse its decision — even after hearing from Brenda Forrest, one of the original jurors, who told the parole board that she no longer trusted the verdict or sentence.
“I feel, emphatically, that Mr. Davis cannot be executed under these circumstances,” she said.
Ultimately, the biggest impact will likely be on the U.S.’ international credibility with respect to its demonstration of an effective democracy. This nation, above all else, firmly believes that it is the standard bearer with respect to protecting the rights of its citizens while bringing those who cause harm to justice. In many cases, we get it right.
However, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu reminds us, “to take a life when a life has been lost is revenge, not justice.” And if the wrong man is paying for the crime, is it even revenge?
With Troy Davis, we got it wrong.