by David T. Bruce
Troy Davis, convicted of the fatal shooting of police officer Mark MacPhail in 1989, was put to death on September 21, 2011 in the state of Georgia. Davis was convicted, although no gun was found, and no DNA evidence was produced unquestionably linking the accused to the crime.
A recent Reuters news article pointed out that in 2009 the U.S. Supreme Court ordered that Davis receive a new hearing to examine new evidence that would support his innocence. Furthermore, “former FBI Director William Sessions called for Davis’ sentence to be commuted to life in prison, saying the case was ‘permeated in doubt.’” The new evidence, however, was rejected by the U.S. District Court in Georgia a year after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the review. Last-minute appeals to the county court and pardons board were likewise rejected. With significant cause to doubt the validity of Davis’ conviction, why were the survivors and the Georgia officials hell-bent on executing a potentially innocent man?
An article in the Huffington Post describes an incident reported in the New Yorker that shows an innocent man was wrongly accused of a murder and subsequently executed following 12 years on death row. The investigative reporter, David Grann, points out that “experts who testified [against the accused] should have known” that the forensic evidence was “completely invalid.” A forensic research consultant submitted data from the Death Penalty Information Center illustrating that prior to the 1972 Furman moratorium (overturned in 1976), approximately 14,489 executions were recorded, and since 1977, 1,118 (1,267 as of September 18, 2011) have been executed. Of those sentenced to death since 1977, 139 have been exonerated; an estimated 39 inmates found to be innocent were wrongly executed. Based on data collected in 2009 approximately 11% of the people convicted of a crime warranting the death penalty have been found to be innocent. Such a failure rate suggests that the system is flawed, and this also suggests that the fate of Troy Davis is not isolated nor the argument in favor of his innocence uncalled for.
A brief review of recent statistics related to the death penalty illustrate that the United States is the only industrialized nation other than Japan that tolerates the death penalty, and seemingly in spite of evidence suggesting innocence or mental retardation. Thirty-four states currently allow for executions, typically by lethal injection; however, the use of the electric chair is legal. How can this be, when according to a Lake Research Partners 2010 poll, 61% of voters believed that a punishment other than the death penalty should be used against those convicted of murder?
I cannot begin to fathom the grief that survivors must endure when a loved one is murdered. At the same time, I cannot reconcile in my own mind how we can present ourselves to the rest of the world as a society and a country that is evolved and against cruelty to man, while we can put a person to death based on circumstantial evidence. How can we as a nation persistently tout the rights of the unborn child, while we look the other way as inmates are put to death for crimes that may not have committed? Frighteningly, how many of us can look onward as those on death row are executed? How many of us demand retribution? Why were the Georgia officials and the survivors hell-bent on the execution of Troy Davis?
Is this human emotion understandable? Yes. Does this help us understand why officials looked the other way or ignored evidence suggesting the innocence of the convicted? No. Should we search for an alternative to execution? Yes.
If we cannot rationalize the moral and ethical implications associated with the death penalty, then let’s talk about something that we can rationalize: the cost, especially as the fate of our global economy is also in question. The average cost of defending a trial in a federal death case is $620,932, about 8 times that of a federal murder case in which the death penalty is not sought.
The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice reported that an additional $90,000 is spent per inmate sentenced to death per year, compared to that of inmates serving life sentences. The 670 inmates on death row in California cost the state an additional $63.3 million annually. The commission estimates the annual cost of the current death penalty system to be $137 million. With suggested reforms, that cost would rise to $232.7 million per year. To impose a lifetime of incarceration instead of the death penalty would cost $11.5 million per year. That’s a savings of $125 million or more per year, just in California.
During a period of time when our nation is struggling to make ends meet, we have no valid fiscal excuse for executing prisoners. Not that we have a good excuse to begin with. “An eye for an eye” has a nice barbaric ring to it, but we as a society must find some resolve for our need for revenge. We are not doing ourselves any justice by putting someone to death. A piece of us is lost when we turn our backs to this bias. There must be far better punishments than the death penalty.
Lawfully convicted murderers should live with their crimes and suffer a lifetime of incarceration without hope for parole. This is obviously a less expensive alternative. Execution is more expensive, sets convicted murderers free (death can indeed be construed as freedom), and presents the risk of executing an innocent person (thereby committing murder – who answers for that crime?). Ultimately, execution is for the benefit of the survivors. We are giving in to the basest part of ourselves, and we are kidding ourselves by arguing otherwise.
An innocent man was executed on September 21, 2011. Many innocent people have been executed before him, and many more will follow. We speak of change. This is a change we must make – for our own humanity.