Two deaths in America

Last night in Georgia, they executed a man. His name was Troy Davis, and he was convicted of killing police officer Mark MacPhail. In the years since Davis’ trial, 7 of the 9 witnesses against him have either recanted their testimony or contradicted it. Davis’ case was so problematic, even some death penalty advocates were urging that the brakes be put on this execution. The U.S. Supreme Court temporarily delayed the execution earlier yesterday evening, then mulled it over for hours before denying a stay. The world may never know whether Georgia put to death an innocent man, but there are deeply troubling questions which may never be answered.

Texas also executed a man last night. James Brewer was one of three men convicted of the brutal murder of James Byrd, a racially-motivated crime so vicious that both Texas and the U.S. enacted hate crimes laws bearing James Byrd’s name. Brewer’s guilt was not in question, and the day before he was executed, he said in a KHOU-TV interview that he had no regrets, and that “I’d do it all over again, to tell you the truth.” Brewer was a racist, and Byrd was an African-American man who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. For this, Byrd became the victim in one of the most savage crimes in modern Texas history.

On the same night, two executions in America. Two very different situations. One case on such a wobbly foundation that it has some death penalty advocates rethinking their position. The other case so utterly rock-solid and brutal that it has some death penalty opponents rethinking theirs.

This is a debate which is long-overdue in America. Your own answer to the central moral question rests on whether you believe government belongs in the death business at all. What it would require, in order to avoid executing putrid scum like James Byrd’s killer, is to answer “no” to that question. It is legitimately arguable – James Byrd’s own family members disagree on that point, and if anybody has earned a ticket to the discussion, it’s them.

But that central moral question depends on an error-free system. Sadly, we don’t even get to have that central moral debate. Instead, too often we are instead forced to debate whether the people we (yes, we) put to death are even guilty of the crime for which they were convicted.

Whether you’re for the death penalty or against it, that is truly a terrible thing to still be debating, even as we (yes, we) cause the deadly chemicals to flow through the veins of those we condemn to die.

The guilt of several of those put to death is still being debated. Texas Governor Rick Perry appears to have recently done everything in his power to avoid even a public examination of the evidence convicting one man who was questionably executed, and the U.S. Supreme Court has stayed two other Texas executions in the last two weeks.

Meanwhile, there have been 37 post-conviction exonerations in Texas since 2001 according to the Innocence Project, including that of Anthony Graves, who was wrongfully convicted of murdering six people and was sitting on death row awaiting his execution when he was cleared of the crimes.

It is worth noting that Governor Perry and his ardent supporters are unabashed death penalty supporters, while at the same time are among those who profess to have little if any trust in government.

How is it possible that the people who trust government the least, are among those who are most confident of the government’s ability to execute only the guilty? How is it possible that those who strongly advocate against a trial by jury in civil cases which cost corporations money, are also enthusiastic advocates of the infallibility of the juries in criminal trials which cost people their liberty, and sometimes their lives?

Regarding yesterday’s executions, Mark MacPhail and James Byrd were the original innocent victims. If the government we’re in charge of created additional innocent victims, there’s something wrong with the government we’re in charge of. And since we’re in charge of it, there may be something wrong with us.



7 Responses to Two deaths in America

  1. Anonymous September 22, 2011 at 2:04 pm #

    Those are excellent points, Harold. But they are only a few of the many logical inconsistencies and contradictory stances that seem to characterize our society. And you are correct: we all share the responsibility, or blame; some are just more proud of their idiocy than others.

    I find it hard to shed a tear for James Brewer, or Kenneth Allen McDuff, or many others who have been execute for heinous crimes. But by assenting to their deaths at the hand of the state, I give my silent assent to the questionable executions of Troy Davis, Cameron Willingham, and the many others who may have been executed to satisfy the avidity of the state to settle the score. It *is* serious stuff.

  2. Jim September 22, 2011 at 5:17 pm #

    The Death Penalty Information Center ( summarizes the cases of at least nine people who apparently were wrongfully executed since 1983. Six of them were victims of Texas Justice.

  3. whiskeydent September 22, 2011 at 6:31 pm #

    As I read this, it dawned on me that political posture is now public policy.

    Rick Perry postures himself as tough on crime, so he refuses to consider whether he has executed innocents. If he did, his opponents would say he’s weak on crime, perhaps even – gasp! – coddling criminals.

    The same is true on a wide array of issues. He postures himself pro-life, so he defunds Planned Parenthood. He postures himself pro-business, so he closes the courthouse to citizens harmed by corporations and doctors. He’s pro-gun, so he claims to shoot some damned coyote.

    Though this practice is more prevalent among Republicans, there are Democrats who make policy by taking postures.

    How’d this happen? Who deserves the blame?

    One could blame the political strategists – excluding FUB and me, of course — who repeatedly tell their clients to STAY ON MESSAGE. Maybe politicians are taking extreme positions to prove their authenticity to jaded voters wary of corruption and hypocrisy. Maybe single-issue groups – desperate to justify their continued existence — are shoving or luring politicians into taking rigid stances.

    I don’t know the answer, but I’m damned sure this is becoming a big problem. The debt reduction fight was just the latest example. Unless things change, there will be more of it. Expect more dead coyotes and less thoughtful debate, more partisan deadlocks and fewer pragmatic solutions. As someone said, there will be a lot of noise signifying nothing.

    Maybe we just need to settle down. Problem is, none of us will lay down our arms for fear of getting shot by our opponents. So we fight on.

  4. Anonymous September 22, 2011 at 6:50 pm #

    I’m so thankful to have found your blog and even more grateful to have you speaking out on behalf of reasonable Texans. Keep up the good work, sir!

  5. em September 23, 2011 at 8:46 pm #

    nothing on steven woods last week, you’re a mass media kinda guy i take it.

  6. FUBAR September 23, 2011 at 10:23 pm #

    Gosh, I’m so very sorry I didn’t name your favorite convict.

  7. TheLabRat October 1, 2011 at 4:57 am #

    This is the best comment thread I’ve read here; wonderful thought provoking statements, all around.

    I’ve always thought that if our goal is to prevent more crime, it would serve that goal better to lock the truly heinous, death-penalty eligible criminals up for life where they can be studied extensively. Only through understanding can we truly figure out how to stop it from happening. We already know a lot about the backgrounds that often lead to extreme criminal behavior but how much more could we learn? True sociopaths and psychopaths are still barely understood and hotly debated in psychiatric circles.

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