A countdown to death
WASHINGTON — I stayed up late Wednesday night in hopes that the U.S. Supreme Court would call off the execution of Troy Davis. Instead, at 11:08 p.m., he was pronounced dead.
One minute he was lifting his head from the death gurney, pleading his innocence in the killing of a police officer 22 years ago and beseeching God to bless the souls of his executioners. Then the drugs entered his veins, he blinked a few times, appeared to yawn, according to witnesses, and entered the sleep from which there is no waking.
Would that there were no next. I’m no wimp when it comes to justice and spent the first few decades of my life backstroking in the Old Testament. An eye-for-an-eye was fine by me. But I have matured and these days wear glibness — and righteousness — like a hair shirt. Satisfaction can never come from the termination of a human life except to protect one’s own and that of one’s dependents. Thus, our barbaric practice of capital punishment, premeditated and coldblooded, is, since we’re in a biblical mood, an abomination. That we grant the state the power to end a citizen’s life is a harrowing-enough thought. That we do so even when we know with certainty that sometimes innocents are killed is beyond comprehension.
In Davis’ case, opinions clearly differed. Seven of the nine witnesses who once identified him as the shooter have since recanted. Even so, a federal judge ruled last year that the recantation testimony cast “minimal doubt” on Davis’ conviction.
Minimal? Isn’t any level of doubt enough?
Apparently, even the Supreme Court didn’t think so. After delaying Davis’ execution for four hours on Wednesday, the court allowed the execution to proceed.
The fact of those recantations surely should create sufficient doubt, not to exonerate Davis but at least not to kill him — even if you support the death penalty, as many sane and lovely Americans do. That said, I’m not so sure a sane and lovely person would or should cheer the death penalty, as audience members did recently upon Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s expression of pride in his administration of ultimate justice. More convicted individuals have died in Texas under Perry’s watch than in any other state.
Though death is nothing to celebrate, I understand the desire for justice. I’ve experienced the horror of murder up close. Three members of my extended family have died at the hands of others and I wish the perpetrators a toasty eternity. But my killing them doesn’t restore anyone’s life. It merely makes me a killer.
Nevertheless, I don’t judge those for whom the ultimate justice brings solace or that most prosaic of catharsis — closure. Everyone understands the reflex to destroy the destroyer. But I do judge us. This nation. This society. This culture. The urge for justice and its close relative, revenge, is human, which is by definition also to err.
For justice to have any meaning, it must also mean that no innocent person should ever be executed. Some argue that the relatively rare and unintentional death of an innocent, if not justifiable, is at least tolerable toward the greater end of punishing the guilty, which is most often the case. During years of covering criminal courts, I was mostly surprised that anyone ever is convicted given the strict standards of proof.
Thanks to DNA testing, we also know that scores have been on death row who shouldn’t have been. Extrapolating, we can safely conclude that some innocents have been wrongfully executed. These facts alone should be all we need to retire the guillotine in hopes that we might yet evolve to a higher level of humanity. Never mind the other factual arguments that capital punishment is not an effective deterrent and that, given our appeals process, executing someone is more expensive than keeping him in prison for life.
When we join together to administer death, we become something other than a civilized community of men and women. No matter how we frame the arguments or justifications, we become executioners. Where there is doubt, as there seems to have been in Davis’ case, we become murderers.
No one is recommending that Davis should have been given a free pass. Life without parole is no picnic. But we might sleep easier had we not participated in killing a man without the moral certainty that he was guilty.