The September 21 execution of Troy Davis in a Georgia death chamber has ignited a firestorm over the use of the death penalty in America. And his death is fueling the movement to end the practice. But how will President Obama react?
The Davis case drew international attention and calls to stop his execution, including pleas from the Pope, Jimmy Carter, Reagan FBI Director William Sessions, former prison officials, and a petition signed by 1 million people worldwide. And 13 people, including four students from Howard University were even arrested in front of the White House for protesting in support of the death row inmate. Talk of the execution of Troy Davis tore through the blogosphere and social media such as Twitter, where black folks in particular expressed their prayers, outrage and grief.
“Troy’s execution, the exceptional unfairness of it, will only hasten the end of the death penalty in the United States,” said Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP. “The world will remember the name of Troy Anthony Davis. In death he will live on as a symbol of a broken justice system that kills an innocent man while a murderer walks free.”
“I will be traveling to Washington, D.C. to meet with the Justice Department to push for a federal law that prohibits any state from prosecuting a capital case based solely on eyewitness testimony. Nowhere in America should an individual be executed again without any concrete physical evidence,” said death penalty opponent Rev. Al Sharpton in the Huffington Post. Sharpton, an Obama ally, noted the irony that the execution took place while many heads of state gathered at the United Nations to discuss human rights.
“As we know all too well, those with money and the ability to hire high-powered attorneys receive the best defense and fighting chance in court. Imagine if one day you woke up and someone accused you of murder and you were then sentenced to death for it. That’s pretty much what happened to Troy. Based solely on eyewitness testimony that is almost unanimously recanted, a man’s life was cut short last night. If laws are designed to protect us and establish a humane society, we must rectify them so that this sort of injustice never happens again,” Sharpton added.
“Last night, Troy Davis was executed. Despite the lack of physical evidence, despite the recantations by seven of nine eyewitnesses, and despite a global campaign by more than a million people insisting there was simply too much doubt, Georgia put this man to death,” said Justin Ruben of MoveOn.org in an email appeal to its members. “But in this moment of sadness and anger, it’s up to all of us to make sure that Davis’ struggle does not die with him. That the fight to fix a criminal justice system riven by racial and class disparities, and to stop our country from executing the innocent, is made stronger because of his example.”
Simply stated, liberals, progressives and black voters — the people who handed President Obama his 2008 victory and can make or break his reelection prospects — are not feeling capital punishment. And it was not lost on them that three of the key players who paved the way for Troy Davis’s execution are black. These include Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who denied the eleventh-hour petition by Davis’s lawyers to stop the execution, and James E. Donald and Albert Murray, the chair and vice chair of the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Parole, who refused to consider the serious questions pointing to the man’s innocence and denied clemency.
The question now is whether the election campaign season will force the president, who was conspicuously silent on the matter of Troy Davis, to take a more definitive position on the death penalty in the general election.
One reason for Obama to move in that direction is Rick Perry. Perry makes no secret of his enthusiasm for capital punishment. And at 236 inmates put to death under his watch as governor, this Texan is the nation’s most willing executioner in modern times — a fact which drew applause for Perry at a recent GOP presidential debate.
“I think Americans understand justice. I think Americans are clearly in the vast majority of cases, supportive of capital punishment,” suggested Perry. “When you have committed heinous crimes against our citizens, and it’s a state-by-state issue, but in the state of Texas, our citizens have made that decision, and they made it clear, and they don’t want you to commit those crimes against our citizens, and if you do, you will face the ultimate justice.”
For Perry’s base of support in the South, his record on death is a virtue. After all, this is the region with the country’s most voracious appetite for executions, an outgrowth of a troubled legacy of lynching and racial violence. Critics cite the racial bias inherent in the practice of capital punishment in the U.S., and a broken justice system where poor, black and brown defendants are more likely to receive an unfair trial and inadequate representation, leading to a death sentence.In Perry’s case, should he become the Republican Party nominee for president, the capital punishment issue could hang him in the general election. Even among death penalty supporters, it is assumed that most people do not want to see innocent people put to death. Yet, in less than a week, the U.S. Supreme Court stayed two Texas executions, including that of Duane Buck, who claims he received a death sentence after a psychologist testified that being black made Buck more of a danger.
Moreover, Gov. Perry has come under fire from death penalty foes for administering a sloppy and cruel system of justice that has almost certainly sent innocent people to their grave.
By appearing the more reasonable of the two candidates on basic issues of fairness, Obama would be well served to distance himself from Perry, who appears extreme and bloodthirsty.
Although his supporters would assume that he is opposed to capital punishment, President Obama’s stance is far more complicated and nuanced. As a state senator in Illinois, Obama pushed reforms to prevent innocent people from being executed, including a measure designed to prevent coerced confessions by requiring law enforcement to videotape interrogations.
Obama also opposed legislation to make it easier for gang members convicted of murder to get the death penalty.
However, while Obama has said that the death penalty does little to deter crime, he has supported capital punishment in cases “so heinous, so beyond the pale, that the community is justified in expressing the full measure of its outrage by meting out the ultimate punishment.”
“I have said repeatedly that I think that the death penalty should be applied in very narrow circumstances for the most egregious of crimes. I think that the rape of a small child, 6 or 8 years old, is a heinous crime,” Obama said, adding that a state should use the death penalty if it determines such punishment is appropriate in such cases.
In staking out a middle ground, Obama has protected himself from the fate visited upon former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential election. What helped undo his bid for president was not necessarily his opposition to the death penalty itself, but rather his detached, academic response to a question on crime. During a debate, the moderator, CNN’s Bernard Shaw, asked Dukakis the following question: “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?” Dukakis responded, “No, I don’t, Bernard,” he said. “And I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life.”
Before Troy Davis and a number of other problematic executions, it is plausible that Obama could have played it safe on capital punishment in 2012, if not ignore the issue entirely. But as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and the man who killed Osama bin Laden, the president does not have to worry about being labeled as soft on crime. For all of his swagger and tough guy bravado, Bush failed to get it done.
And yet, perhaps because it is a campaign season, Obama has straddled the fence and failed to weigh in on Troy Davis, save a statement from press secretary Jay Carney that Obama “has worked to ensure accuracy and fairness in the criminal justice system,” and that it was inappropriate for him “to weigh in on specific cases like this one, which is a state prosecution.”
But now, Troy Davis, an apparently, likely or at least arguably innocent man is dead. And the president’s base has lost patience with a broken and unfair justice system that is stacked against black people, and seeks expediency over the determination of actual guilt or innocence.
Ultimately, black public opinion could force his hand. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll shows the president’s support slipping among African-Americans, from 83 percent giving him strongly favorable views five months ago, to 58 percent today. This does not mean that many black voters will defect to the other side of the political divide. After all, there is nothing for them in the other party at this point in time.
However, a lack of black enthusiasm — due to unemployment and a bad economy, perhaps a feeling that the president still fails to respond to matters of concern to them — could mean low turnout from the base.
And as for President Obama, if blacks and other voters stay away from the polls next year, no army of independent voters could possibly make up for that deficit.