American Society and the Death Penalty—The Case of Troy Davis

troy DavisWednesday, September 21st commemorated the International Day of Peace. As events in the name of peace spread across the globe, Troy Davis sat in his Georgia cell awaiting word on a stay of execution. There were those who spent that day protesting against the death penalty in his case. Likewise, there were others determined that the execution should go on as planned. These people maintained that the justice system had worked as it should. They also believed that the family of the slain officer whose murder sparked the case deserved closure.

This case brings up many issues. Whereas one can understand a grieving family’s desire for closure, it is unclear that this emotional need of a few should have any bearing on an impartial justice system. It seems equally untenable to maintain that State sponsored murder is justified because it potentially acts as a deterrent to others committing similar crimes. Didn’t our society reject the validity of such notions when we turned away from public displays of cutting off the limbs of thieves or blinding those who cast an eye the wrong way? Although we are supposedly protected against cruel and unusual punishment, one has to wonder how putting others to death falls outside of these constraints.

In the case of Troy Davis, the issue that captivated the headlines was that of his potential innocence. With several of the initial witnesses recanting their previous testimony, the case was made that he was unjustly found guilty. This camp argued that new evidence cast doubt on his conviction, and that no execution should be performed when questions remained as to the certainty of guilt.

Oddly enough, in nearby Texas, another execution was to be played out that same day. Found guilty of a gruesome racial killing, Lawrence Russell Brewer was to be put to death. With seemingly no question as to his guilt, the most reported protests came from politicians who complained about Brewer’s right for a last meal of his choosing.

Herein lies a dilemma: with regard to Troy Davis, foes of capital punishment rested their case on the probability that an innocent person will occasionally fall victim to the practice. What these foes failed to realize, is that this is a risk our society is willing to take. We have become used to the idea of collateral damage as an acceptable part of any war. In this case the “war on crime.” In taking this approach, we abandon a more basic moral stance—acknowledging that regardless of a person’s guilt or innocence, State sponsored murder is something that demoralizes a society. We must grapple with the contradiction of emotionally feeling some crimes are so heinous that the perpetrators deserve to die, and the rational conclusion that acting on such legitimate emotions is ultimately destructive to our society.  If arguments against the death penalty are tied to concerns about innocent victims, we lose site of this more basic issue that society needs to resolve for itself.

by William Repicci

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *