Troy Davis: "For those about to take my life, God have mercy on your souls. And may God bless your souls."
This is a guest post by Zach Johnstone:
The last words of Troy Davis, executed in the early hours of Thursday morning, resonate with those who read them precisely because they remind us of the inveterate reality that miscarriages of justice can, and do, take place. Evidence that may at one time seem irrefutable can later be shown to be without foundation or, at the very least, insufficient to warrant the ending of a life. The circumstances surrounding the Davis trial were dubious, the testimonies questionable and the evidence insubstantial. In a fate reminiscent of the case of Teresa Lewis in late 2010 (and countless others), we have been made bluntly aware of the irremediable nature of a death sentence – there are no grey areas when it comes to such a punishment, and no opportunities for reconsideration.
Irrespective of the extent to which Davis was complicit in the murder of policeman Mark MacPhail in Georgia in 1989, the mere possibility of his innocence and the court’s subsequent response is reason enough for us to look closely at the implications of the reinstatement of the death penalty in the United Kingdom. The ambiguity surrounding Davis’ guilt - and the need to explore the case’s wider ethical repercussions - is particularly pertinent given that the two e-petitions seeking debate in Parliament on capital punishment have, at the time of writing, collectively attracted more than 50,000 signatures, a matter upon which His Grace has previously ruminated. But what if such cases were to arise in the UK? Are there incontrovertible benefits to be arrived at by way of sentencing criminals to death? Would it ever be permissible to tacitly consent to the occasional innocent death via wrongful conviction if the overall effect on society was positive?
Without doubt, the most commonly deployed argument from those in favour of capital punishment is its utility as a deterrent against heinous crimes such as rape and murder. On Thursday night’s edition of Question Time, the newly-elected Conservative MP Priti Patel propounded this theory, insisting that if capital punishment were in place a fall in crime would logically follow. She is far from alone; Charlie Wolf, the American broadcaster, wrote yesterday that “one only has to look at studies and statistics concerning murderers who have been let out to kill again to realise that the death penalty does work as a deterrent”. It is a view that is seemingly logically consistent at first glance, yet despite Mr Wolf’s appeal to ‘statistics’, he helpfully fails to offer anything in the way of quantitative data.
A little digging, however, soon reveals that the ‘deterrence’ argument is not as black and white as it is often presented; a study published in 1998 detailing murder rates in the world’s major cities revealed that the number of murders per 100,000 citizens in London stood at 2.1. In Philadelphia, where capital punishment is very much in operation, the figure stood at 27.4. These figures are not, of course, gospel – for one thing, any number of extenuating factors aside from capital punishment – be they social, economic or cultural - could account for such variations. What seems clear, however, is that the deterrence argument is not a trump card. In the face of the threat of death, experience from other countries demonstrates that murders will continue apace, with little evidence that criminals feel put off by the prospect of losing their life.
Yet what of those who readily acknowledge this reality and yet still advocate the reintroduction of capital punishment? The overriding sentiment here is seemingly one of revenge and reprisal borne out of contempt for the perpetrators of atrocious acts of violence. Justification of this viewpoint is in keeping with ‘an eye for an eye’; if you are prepared to end a life, it therefore follows that you must expect yours to end too. There is, I believe, cause to argue that this perspective holds some weight – whilst some may contend that this is no way in which to carry out justice in a civilised society, it is patently observable that those charged with murder thought little of civility when committing the most merciless crimes imaginable. The problem, however, arises when we delve deeper into the implications of a death sentence, given the propensity of legal systems in all countries to (quite frankly) get it wrong. To be placed on death row has, time and time again, proven not to be absolute evidence of guilt, and there is little to suggest that this would change in the United Kingdom.
To take the example of Philadelphia once more, it is interesting to note that between 1986 and 2005 six people were exonerated whilst awaiting execution on death row, narrowly avoiding paying the ultimate price for a crime that they did not commit. These are the (relatively) lucky few, however, and clearly do not represent all innocent people who find themselves erroneously charged with grievous deeds. Whether innocent or, as in the case of Troy Davis, where the evidence gradually dissipates and leaves the principle of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ in tatters, there is a need in any intelligent discussion of capital punishment to acknowledge the axiom that innocent people are, from time to time, on the receiving end of misappropriated death sentences. Where high-profile mass murderers such as Saddam Hussein are concerned, many of us instinctively and unreservedly support execution, however where there is reason to suspect innocence, cases such as that of Troy Davis have demonstrated (if it were needed) the utterly unparalleled consequences of sentencing individuals to death.
If we are to have a sensible debate surrounding the death penalty, there is a fundamental need to learn the lessons of other countries; to recognise the myriad failings of US states, most importantly their failure to categorically determine guilt or innocence in a multiplicity of cases, is essential. We must also dispense with the formulaic notion that capital punishment results in a decline in the number of murders, a notion that runs up against difficulties as soon as it is subjected to quantitative analysis. Evidence would have to be beyond doubt, and no stone left unturned. Ultimately, of course, there is rarely absolute certitude (save in the case of confessions) when it comes to cases of such severity. Whether or not we can abide the loss of the occasional innocent life in order to ensure that the overwhelmingly guilty majority receive a punishment befitting their crime is a pressing issue, and one to which there is no obvious answer. It is for individuals to delve into their consciences, to debate and discuss, and to ultimately arrive at their own moral conclusions. On balance, however, I find myself opposed to the reinstatement of capital punishment: the loss of even one innocent life in the name of retribution is, I believe, too great a price to pay.
(Addendum [by His Grace]: the sad case of Cameron Todd Willingham).