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Troy Davis Case Proves Death Penalty Is Fatally Flawed

John Holdridge,
Capital Punishment Project
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October 6, 2008

The U.S. death penalty system is a failed government program unworthy of a people that cherish fairness and justice. If we needed any further proof of this fact, the Troy Davis case seals the deal.

On September 23, 2008, Troy Davis came within two hours of being executed. He was at least temporarily saved when the United States Supreme Court granted a last-minute stay to give it time to decide whether to review his case. But Troy is not out of the woods. If the Supreme Court decides not to take his case, he will once again face execution.

Troy Davis has steadfastly maintained his innocence for all of the many years he has been imprisoned on Georgia's death row. An African-American, Davis was convicted of the murder of a white, off-duty Savannah Police Officer named Mark MacPhail in 1991. Not a shred of physical evidence links him to the crime. No murder weapon has been found. Nine non-police witnesses testified against him at trial, but all but two of these witnesses have either recanted their testimony or gave contradictory statements prior to Troy's trial. Some of the recanting witnesses now assert that they were coerced by police to say that Davis was the murderer. One of the witnesses who did not recant was seen acting suspiciously the night of Officer MacPhail's murder and has been heard boasting that he killed an off-duty police officer.

As extraordinary as it seems, despite the collapse of the case against Troy Davis, and despite the pleas on Troy's behalf by such leading figures of moral authority as Pope Benedict XVI, former president Jimmy Carter and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Desmond Tutu (PDF), the State of Georgia still wants to execute him.

This deeply troubling case illustrates four truths about our capital punishment system.

First, it is fraught with error. In the past 35 years, 130 innocent death row inmates have been exonerated and released after years on death row, and eight men have been executed even though there were serious questions about their guilt. In other words, the system can't reliably determine who is guilty, let alone who deserves the death penalty. And, despite popular myths, DNA is no panacea to the scourge of wrongful convictions and executions. It is available in only 10 percent of all murder cases.

That's Troy Davis' biggest problem. He cannot convince some death penalty supporters that he is innocent because there is no DNA evidence available to conclusively exclude him as the culprit. These supporters of capital punishment defend his conviction and death sentence by citing the flimsy evidence presented at his trial. But then they turn around and demand that Troy Davis prove his innocence with unassailable, irrefutable evidence.

That's not how our capital punishment system should work. When it comes to the death penalty, innocence should never have to be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. We must not execute a human being if there is any legitimate chance that he is innocent.

Second, our judicial system can no longer monitor and control the use of capital punishment. Courts and legislators have made it so difficult for death-row inmates to challenge their convictions and death sentences that the system is unable to correct its own mistakes. It has become like an 18-wheeler barreling down a mountain, with no run-off lanes to stop it.

Third, the death penalty is infected by economic discrimination. It's a poor man's penalty. It is about poor people receiving death sentences because their lawyers were too overworked and underfunded to properly represent them.

Some politicians love to go around proclaiming their support for capital punishment but then they turn around and refuse to pay for a fair system. Capital defenders are given grossly inadequate time and resources to adequately defend their clients. We are seeing that again today with the funding crisis in Georgia's system of providing lawyers for poor people. Fourth, the death penalty discriminates on the basis of race. Study after study in state after state, including Georgia, has demonstrated that, everything else being equal, a defendant is about three to four times more likely to get a death sentence if he kills a white person than if he kills a person of color. And the combination most likely to get the death penalty is a black defendant convicted of killing a white victim.

As former Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun declared: “race continues to play a major role in determining who shall live and who shall die.”

In short, the Troy Davis case is a no brainer. The State of Georgia must not execute him. After all, as Justice Blackmun also once said, the execution of an innocent man comes perilously close to murder.

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