For people who are religious, the fear of death is tempered by a belief that the soul has someplace to go. (For those not so inclined, there is surely other comfort.)
The nation has a kind of collective soul, too, and it is impacted by many things, including the balance of justice and mercy that is employed on our behalf.
Capital punishment is one of those issues that strains our collective psyche — or at least it should. There is no more awesome power granted to the state than the power to put someone to death. And if there is even a chance that the person being killed by the state, on behalf of “the people” – meaning all of us — is innocent, that power is ominous indeed.
In the case of Troy Davis, who was put to death Wednesday night by the state of Georgia, there is reason to believe that the power of the state to deprive a man not just of liberty, but of life, was exercised against an innocent man. That thought — that horrible thought — should rock the collective conscience of this country, from each individual member of society, to the jurors who heard Davis’ case, to the prosecutors and judges who considered his guilt, to the Georgia Board of Pardons, to the state and United States Supreme Courts, both of which rejected his lawyers’ last ditch appeals for mercy, and even to the White House.
WATCH ‘TODAY SHOW’ COVERAGE OF TROY DAVIS’ EXECUTION:
The president of the United States had no constitutional authority to stop the killing of Troy Davis — it was a state, not a federal case. But President Obama spent part of Wednesday addressing the world, which had come calling at the United Nations, to consider the matter of Palestinian statehood. The Davis spectacle, which became the subject of international protests, and appeals from the pope, former U.S. president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Jimmy Carter, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and even a statement from the European Union, was a sorry calling card for a country that’s supposed to be a beacon to others.
America stands nearly alone in the western world as a killer of its prisoners. In continuing to execute people, we stand with Pakistan, Somalia, Cuba, China and Iran. Even if you support the death penalty, the idea of putting to death the wrong man should be unsettling.
Davis was convicted of killing a police officer, Mark MacPhail, in 1989. Of the nine people who claimed they witnessed Davis shooting MacPhail to death, seven have recanted. Several witnesses now claim that one of the men claiming to know that Davis is guilty, is himself the killer. The U.S. Supreme Court back in 1999 found the potential for Davis’ innocence compelling enough to stay his death sentence and send the case back to the appeals court. But that court demanded that Davis prove his innocence, rather than placing the burden of proof on the prosecution.
Davis’ next best hope, the Georgia Board of Pardons, rejected his final chance at clemency this week, issuing a perfunctory statement that the five member body — two African-Americans and three white members — would not prevent the state from killing him.
The crispness of the statement was almost as chilling as the cheers at the Reagan Library at a recent Republican debate, when Texas Gov. Rick Perry said he doesn’t lose a night’s sleep over the 234 executions he had presided over up to that point.
In the case of Mr. Davis, it’s hard to imagine that his economic class — here was a man without means, and without the ability to hire a team of expensive lawyers, and the fact that the victim of the shooting was a police officer — played a part in his fate.
The family of Officer MacPhail wanted this outcome. And they have every right to feel that rage, and that thirst for revenge, or in their minds, justice. They were not, and are not, required to agree with the son of James Byrd, Jr., a black man who was beaten and dragged to death by a gang of white supremacists in East Texas in 1998. In that case the victim’s son, Ross Byrd, objected the state of Texas executing his father’s killer, Lawrence Russell Brewer, saying Brewer’s death could not repay his loss.
Brewer, whose guilt was not presumed to be in doubt, was put to death Wednesday night, too (two of Byrd’s sisters attended the execution.) If you oppose the death penalty, you’re supposed to feel the same chill at Brewer’s death that you do at Davis’ execution. But the psychic toll of the killing of Troy Davis seems that much greater because of his potential innocence.
Every American should sympathize with the MacPhail family for their loss. But the state of Georgia wasn’t acting only for them. The killing of Troy Davis is our collective responsibility because it was done on all our behalf.
May God have mercy on our souls.