It is nearly half a century since the last person was executed in the UK. Since then this move has generally been seen as a positive step, if only due to it being a failsafe against grave miscarriages of justice. The case of Troy Davis, recently executed by the state of Georgia, certainly continues to cast doubts on how just a punishment the death penalty actually is.
Troy Davis, 42, was arrested in 1989 for the murder of an off-duty policeman. Despite no weapon or DNA evidence ever being provided by the prosecution, he was convicted and sentenced to death. Witnesses later claimed that police bullying tactics coerced them in to making false statements during the original trial; seven of the nine witnesses on whom the original prosecution rested recanted their evidence after the trial.
Needless to say, Troy Davis proclaimed his innocence from the beginning and a long, laborious process of legal appeals and Supreme Court intervention was enacted that saw Davis go through the execution process three times, only for it to be rescinded each time. On the fourth attempt, on the 21st September 2011, despite significant delay as the Supreme Court laboured to a split decision, the execution went ahead.
The problem with the appeals made by Davis’ legal team rested on the burden of proof required. Rather than the prosecution being required to prove that the defendant was guilty beyond reasonable doubt, it was instead for the defence to prove that the defendant was innocent beyond reasonable doubt. Many of the witnesses were not considered to be reliable enough to prove this, though many of these were the same witnesses that had led to his conviction in the first place.
During an extraordinary evidentiary hearing in Savannah, a federal district judge admitted that the case was not ‘iron clad’. Troy Davis may well have been guilty, but at the same time it seems to go against generally accepted logic to put to death a man when it is not absolutely certain that it was he who committed the crime.
If it is eventually proven that Troy Davis was not the killer of Officer MacPhail, the off-duty policeman murdered in 1989, then it would not be the first such miscarriage of justice in the American judicial system. Teresa Lewis, the first American to be put to death by lethal injection, was executed despite evidence that her IQ was so low that she could almost be considered intellectually disabled. Likewise, in 2004 Cameron Todd Willingham was put to death for starting a fire that killed his three children. Not only were the claims made by the prosecution that he abused his kids dismissed by Willingham’s wife, but an inspection of the case found that there was no clear proof that the fire was actually arson. Despite all of this evidence, Governor Rick Perry (now a candidate for the Republican Party Presidential nomination) had him executed and continues to maintain that the evidence used to convict Willingham was sound.
Supporters of the death penalty have argued that Troy Davis had 22 years to prove that he was not guilty of the crime, and that in the end he had not done so successfully. While it is true that there will probably never be a final answer to who killed Officer MacPhail back in 1989, there is such doubt now on Davis’ conviction that it was surely reckless of the state of Georgia to go ahead with this execution. Indeed, one has to question whether in the UK the defendant would not be asking for their conviction to be quashed, undermined as the original evidence seems to be.
Either way, Troy Davis went to his grave proclaiming his innocence to the end. He addressed the family of Mark MacPhail in his final words, saying, “The incident that night was not my fault. I did not have a gun. I did not personally kill your son, father, and brother. I am innocent.” He finished by addressing “those who are about to take my life, may God have mercy on your souls, may God bless your souls.”
It is probable that a miscarriage of justice may well have occurred in this case, though it is almost certain that there will be no abolition of the death penalty in the US following this case, despite fresh calls for it to be abolished from some corners. Rather ominously, Governor Perry’s record of presiding over more executions than any US Governor in history is seen as a good thing for his Presidential campaign.
A sycophantic article written for The Daily Cougar, the student newspaper of the University of Houston, applauded Perry for his record on the death penalty and his ‘strong’ approach to crime. This despite admitting “In these modern times, the death penalty has been demonized by its opponents as uncivilized and obsolete… [much] of Europe, Australia, Mexico, Canada and parts of Southern Africa have completely abolished the death penalty in their countries, equalling 96 countries in total.” The article considers this to be a positive thing, and claims that “to regard a system as wholly perfect and as impossible to fail would just be naïve and outright foolish.” The article seems not to realise that there is in fact already a system that never causes the death of innocents when it comes to convicting murderers – it is called a life sentence.
There must at some point come a realisation that the death penalty brings very few practical benefits and some overwhelmingly negative potential consequences. No wonder Georgia took 22 years to put Troy Davis to death – there were enough holes in the case for legitimate doubt to delay the execution for decades. When this is the case, something as important as a person’s life should not be gambled upon.