What do history's most notorious despots have in common with many of the flag-waving, patriotic politicians of our day? Both groups rise to power through the exploitation of fear, which has become a societal plague. There have been widespread casualties. We need an antidote. Feardom offers its readers a much-needed immunization.
photo credit: Amnesty International
At a recent debate for Republican presidential candidates, Texas Governor Rick Perry was asked a question regarding the death penalty. Moderator Brian Williams noted that Texas “has executed 234 death row inmates—more than any other governor in modern times.” Interestingly, the audience immediately broke out into applause.
That may be an appropriate reaction, assuming that every one of those individuals was in fact guilty of the crime for which they had been convicted. But the moderator continued with his question that takes a different angle. Perry was asked: “Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?”
His immediate reply, “No sir, I’ve never struggled with that at all,” shows an alarming callousness towards the power assumed by government to execute an individual. His elaborated response, regarding some of the process used preceding the imposition of death, was followed up by another round of applause.
Applause. Not at the thought of executing a truly guilty felon, but at the rejection of the idea that one or more of those 234 individuals may have in fact been innocent.
In the United States, there have been 273 post-conviction DNA exonerations—situations in which a convicted criminal turned out to in fact be innocent, proven by DNA analysis. 273 innocent individuals—surely a small sample of how many exist within our “justice” system—accused and convicted of having committed a crime in which they in fact played no part. 273 people suffering a sentence for something they did not do.
This is one thing when you’re in a jail cell being well fed and taken care of at the taxpayer’s expense. It’s another thing entirely when that conviction leads to death. The prevalence of reversed convictions should give pause to anybody who supports the death penalty to any degree:
As of October 2010, 138 individuals in 26 states since 1973 have been freed from death row after being incarcerated an average of nearly 10 years, and analysis by the Innocence Project casts grave doubts on whether the death penalty is reliably imposed. Since 1989, 17 people on death row have had their convictions overturned by DNA testing alone. More broadly, between 1977 and 1999, 80 Americans sentenced to death were later released when proven innocent (through either DNA testing or other methods), while 553 were executed. The ratio in the state of Illinois over the same period was much more alarming: 12 inmates were executed while 13 death row prisoners were exonerated.
Rick Perry sleeps just fine at night, not caring about such statistics. One can only imagine his cold indifference towards last night’s execution of Troy Davis, a man convicted of killing a police officer in Savannah, Georgia in 1989. Davis’ case had caught international intentional due to the extremely unsettling circumstances: reports of police misconduct, key witnesses changing their story and reports from other witnesses that somebody else had confessed to the crime. The New York Times editorial describes the situation:
The grievous errors in the Davis case were numerous, and many arose out of eyewitness identification. The Savannah police contaminated the memories of four witnesses by re-enacting the crime with them present so that their individual perceptions were turned into a group one. The police showed some of the witnesses Mr. Davis’s photograph even before the lineup. His lineup picture was set apart by a different background. The lineup was also administered by a police officer involved in the investigation, increasing the potential for influencing the witnesses.
Seven of nine witnesses against Mr. Davis recanted after trial. Six said the police threatened them if they did not identify Mr. Davis. The man who first told the police that Mr. Davis was the shooter later confessed to the crime. There are other reasons to doubt Mr. Davis’s guilt: There was no physical evidence linking him to the crime introduced at trial, and new ballistics evidence broke the link between him and a previous shooting that provided the motive for his conviction.
Troy Davis may very well have been guilty. But the government’s claim of authority (assuming it to even be legitimate) to end the life of another individual must be checked, re-checked, and repeatedly questioned—especially when significant or suspicious information is presented which throws the integrity of the conviction into question.
And so what if he was innocent? That means that despite the petitions, the protests, and the congressmen and celebrities asking for clemency, and despite the international alarm generated over Davis’ case, the government snuffed out the life of a man who did not do what a few black-robed lawyers called “judges” thought he did.
Troy Davis has now been sent to meet his true Judge, who knows whether or not he indeed was guilty of the crime for which his life was ended early.
Meanwhile, certain Republican candidates and supporters sleep easy and applaud.