Troy Davis: Executed murderer or unjustly martyred?

2011/09/22

1968-2011

After an extraordinary series of appeals and turns to his case, convicted death row prisoner Troy Davis was finally executed by my home state of Georgia for the 1989 murder of off-duty police officer Kevin McPhail around 11pm last night.

I’ve been hearing about this case for years and hoped against hope that he might be spared. There is a great deal of reasonable doubt that he was the actual killer that night, considering:

  • Many of the witnesses have since recanted their testimonies — seven of the nine.
  • his associate, another convict who was the first to finger Davis, later confessed — out of court — to being the triggerman.
  • And lest this simply marginalized as another case of the left championing some “political prisoner” like Mumia Abu-Jamal, Davis’ cause attracted a wide spectrum of supporters including the Vatican and the Pope (who are anti-death penalty anyhow) and ex-FBI head William Sessions.

—————-

I’m actually in favor of the death penalty for the crime of murder — in principle. Taking a life is a serious matter, and some people are so far gone that they need to pay that ultimate price. (Next week, I plan to post on a big reason why I hold this position.)

But there is no room for error in a capital case. Given the sheer number of bad and reversed convictions we’ve seen in the past 10 or so years thanks to advances such as DNA evidence, it’s clear that the state needs to make its cases airtight when seeking capital punishment.

I don’t see that in the Davis case at all. I see a conviction based upon a great deal of circumstantial evidence…much of which has become unreliable testimony and little physical evidence. That’s a lot of reasonable doubt.

Therefore, while I might support capital punishment in principle, in practice I cannot be in favor of the death penalty. For every Casey Anthony who may well be guilty but the evidence doesn’t clear away doubt, there are folks like Troy Davis who may well be guilty but the evidence does a poor job of proving that guilt beyond reasonable doubt.

In fact, the ones ignoring this mountain of doubt are themselves unreasonable. McPhail’s survivors can’t be reasonable about it, which is understandable — they’ve been locked in a loop of grief for over 20 years. They think the execution will help them move on. They’re wrong. Davis’s prosecutors certainly can’t bend, either, as their professional reputations are staked upon this unusually high-profile case.

By the same token, we on the side of clemency are biased, too. Sure, seven of the nine witnesses changed their tune over the years. But why? Could it be fading memory? Public or peer pressure? Conscience? Moreover, as I’m reading more about the case, I’m learning that there were a few more than just nine witnesses. Most of us who protest don’t have all the facts. (Wikipedia don’t count.)

I’m just saying that the recantations aren’t necessarily the anti-smoking gun.

Still. Life in prison for a crime he may not have even committed, I think, wasn’t so much to ask. And if Davis has actually been lying all this time, he certainly kept up the act all the way to the end. His last words were to first tell the attendant McPhail survivors he was sorry for their loss but that he was innocent, and then to ask God for mercy…not for himself, but for his executioners.

And then he asked God to bless them.

Strange end for a man convicted of gunning down a hero with a smile.

Rest in peace, Troy Davis. No matter what the truth may be, you’re in God’s hands now.

May He heed your last request.

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