A Society in Decline?

There is much talk regarding the death of Troy Davis last night in the Georgia death chamber.  From the offset, I will admit that I am against the death penalty in every case.  I don’t care who it is or what they have done.  Life is life.  Saying that, you will not hear me complain about the death penalty being carried out in certain circumstances.  Usuma bin Laden is not someone who I can muster a great deal of sympathy for.  My preference would have been to stick him in a 7×10 cage being guarded by big burly women and forced to watch home movies of the all the innocent people he killed.  To me that would have been a much harsher punishment than to give him what he wanted in becoming a martyr for the “cause”. 

You also won’t hear a peep out of me if the murders of the Petit family ever make it to the death chamber in Connecticut (and since I grew up in CT, I find it unlikely they will).  I won’t agree with it on a personal level, but there is no doubt of the guilt of the two men.  Mumia Abul Jamal is another that you will not hear an opinion from me, at least in the public sense on this blog.  Any fair-minded person who reads the transcript of the trial of that man has to conclude he is indeed guilty of murder. 

But did we kill an innocent man last night?  I am not going to say that Troy Davis wasn’t a criminal.  He was.  Of that there can be no doubt.  He committed crimes.  But was he the shooter of the off duty police officer?  The facts of the case since his trail are not conclusive enough to for anyone to say that they are 100% sure of his actions that night decades ago. 

I am not writing this to try to change minds of anyone on the death penalty.  This is an issue, much like abortion, that you are pretty set in your belief system.  That belief system tends to coincide with your political beliefs.  The right is far more likely to approve the death penalty, while the left is usually against.  My point being that as a society don’t we owe it to ourselves and the next generation to be sure that if we are giving out the ultimate punishment (one that cannot be reversed) that we are as close to 100% certain of guilt as we can be? 

Mr. Davis was largely convicted based on eyewitness testimony.  The least reliable source of information.  One example, if I may.  Many years ago I was working in an office building that had security for all the offices.  There was no way to enter any of the office space without entering a code or being let in by the receptionist.  One morning while I was headed out to feed my addiction there was a man in the lobby area outside of the elevators.  He was dressed in clothes that looked like work clothes and had a lightbulb in his hand.  I didn’t think much about it and just kept walking to the elevator.  He wasn’t a maintenance man, but was a thief.  He robbed about 10 or so people before he got caught.  He made off with about $1,000 in cash.  Four of us saw him.  I got a very good look at him when I opened the door.  We gave about three different descriptions about what he wearing and didn’t seem to agree if he had facial hair or not.  I couldn’t even remember the color of his hat 30 minutes later.  Had I known he was a criminal maybe I would have paid closer attention.  But my point being is that we all saw the same person (there was only one) and couldn’t agree.  Studies have shown over and over again that eyewitness testimony is not very reliable.  Many things can happen to leave a person not sure of what they are seeing, distance and poor lighting being just two examples. 

I became interested in this topic many years ago for some strange reason, and I did research on it.  I read opinions on both sides of the issues and I came away changing my viewpoint and being against it.  If we are going to have the death penalty in this country (which I think we should not) at the very least shouldn’t it be administered in a fair way?  I am not talking about the act of putting someone to death, because I think that a needle in the arm is the most humane way of committing the act, but when deciding who to charge with death penalty cases and who not to?  Studies are pretty clear about the race of the victims and the race of the defendant, it will come as shock to many who hold the belief that it is done on racial lines. 

Nationally, the racial composition of those on death row is 45% white, 42% black, and 10% Latino/ Latina. Of states with more than 10 people on death row, Texas (70%) and Pennsylvania (69%) have the largest percentage of minorities on death row. Year 2000 census data revealed that the racial composition of the United States was 75.1% white, 12.3% black and 12.5% Latino/Latina. While these statistics might suggest that minorities are overrepresented on death row, the same statistical studies that have found evidence of race of victim effects in capital sentencing have not conclusively found evidence of similar race of defendant effects. In fact, while some studies show that the race of the defendant is correlated with death sentences, no researcher has made definitive findings that the death sentence is being imposed on defendants on account of their race, per se, independently of other variables (such as type of crime) which are correlated with defendants’ race.

I am not willing to say that death penalty is all about race and the people who are making the decisions about who gets a capital murder charge are racists.  There are plenty of others that do that routinely.  But, what I am willing to bet my life on is that decision in many cases is a political one and not based solely on justice or law.  The murders of the Petit family being a perfect example.  Both the victims and the murderers are white.  So it has nothing to do with race, but it was largely a political decision.  The murders were so horrific and to make things worse were committed by ex-cons, that the public outcry was to “hang ’em high”.  Which is very unusual in that very liberal state.  It is perfectly understandable to want revenge on such a brutal killing.  It is after all, a human response.  I have a great deal of sympathy for Mr. Petit.  His family was wiped out in front of his eyes and he is very lucky to be alive.  It is natural that he would want the murderers to be put to death.  I can understand that he feels that it is justice for what he lost.  The OJ Simpson case being yet another example.  He killed two people and in California that is Capital Murder.  The death penalty is legal in that state and if the system were “fair” he would have been charged as such.  But it wasn’t a good political move to charge a famous athlete with a death penalty case. 

But does our law have room for human emotion?  Shouldn’t cases be decided solely on the basis of fact and evidence?  I am a firm believer that the law is the law.  A very simple example of bringing emotion into the law is illegal immigration.  It is truly heartbreaking that a young child, through no fault of their own, is brought to this country illegally and then is found out later in life.  They no longer have a true connection to their country of origin, but the law is the law and they should be deported.  It is the same with anchor babies having to watch their parents being deported.  It is heart-rending on an emotional individual level, but it should not be a matter of emotion.  The case should be judged on the rule of law.  I am no way advocating cutting out all human emotion when it comes to making judgements in cases, but the human emotional response to a horrific criminal act shouldn’t be the only reason we jump to the death penalty.  The death of any police officer is emotional.  It is not only emotional to the family, but to the police force, and to society in general.  We grieve for the loss of someone who put their lives on the line to provide for the rule of law for the rest of us.  I am unable to find any studies that deal with the families of victims after the murderer is put to death.  I firmly believe that they will not get what the peace that they believe that will come, because what they truly want is the one thing that they will never get; their loved one back. 

When examining death penalty cases it is difficult to do on a purely factual level.  Much of the media reports it in a way that is biased to one side or the other.  Very strong opinions on the right or wrong of it exist.  We have the bleeding heart liberal side that will always side with the criminal regardless of the evidence.  Guilt or innocence is irrelevant to that crowd.  But is guilt beyond all reasonable doubt relevent to the other side?  That is the question that I have been thinking about for the past week or so while this story was in the headlines. 

There is room for doubt in the guilt of Troy Davis as the shooter of the Officer McPhail.  Seven out nine witnesses have since recanted their stories.  The physical evidence tying him to the gun that killed McPhail is non-existent as the gun was never found.  One of the witnesses admits to being at the scene, admits to having a gun in the same caliber as the weapon that was used in the murder, but shines the guilt on Troy Davis.  There is reasonable doubt in his story as he has incentive to lie.  Sylvester Coles could very well be the real killer and now we more than likely never know the truth.  One of the witnesses was only 16 years old at the time of the death and was told he could be considered an accessory to murder and could get a long prison term.  Another witness that has incentive to lie, who is one of the witnesses that has recanted his testimony.  Troy Davis deserved another jury trial.  These witnesses should have had their stories examined in totality in the light of day for all to see and to let a jury decide on which evidence was credible and which was not. 

If we did kill an innocent man last night, we are indeed a society in decline.