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.