The death penalty is a barbaric anachronism, a crude instrument not of justice but of revenge. Most countries banished it long ago. This country should banish it now.
The state of Georgia was wrong to execute convicted murderer Troy Anthony Davis as protesters and journalists kept a ghoulish vigil Wednesday night — just as the state of Texas was wrong, hours earlier, to execute racist killer Lawrence Russell Brewer.
That’s hard for me to write, because if anyone deserved a syringe full of lethal poison it was Brewer. He was an avowed white supremacist who had been convicted, along with two accomplices, of the 1998 hate-crime murder of a black man, James Byrd Jr. They offered Byrd a ride, beat him up and then killed him by chaining his ankles to the back of their pickup and dragging him for more than two miles. When police found Byrd’s body, it was dismembered and decapitated.
“I have no regrets,” Brewer said in an interview with Beaumont, Tex., television station KFDM this year. “I’d do it all over again, to tell you the truth.”
Sweet guy, huh? Still, I can’t applaud his death at the hands of the well-practiced Texas executioners. It’s not that I believe his life had any redeeming value, just that the state was wrong to snuff it out.
The Davis case drew worldwide attention because of questions about the evidence of his guilt. Davis was found guilty of killing a Savannah, Ga., police officer, Mark MacPhail, in 1989. The conviction was based almost entirely on eyewitness testimony, and in the two decades since that trial, seven of nine witnesses have at least partially recanted.
The case became a cause celebre. Luminaries who could never be accused of being soft on crime — such as former FBI Director William Sessions and former GOP Rep. Bob Barr — argued that Davis should not be executed because of doubt about his guilt.
Wednesday night, in his last words, Davis told MacPhail’s family that “I did not personally kill your son, father and brother. I am innocent.” Then a deadly cocktail of drugs was pumped into his veins.
The Davis case makes a compelling case against the death penalty — but not because it is exceptional. On the contrary, it’s fairly ordinary.
Despite what you see on “CSI,” there isn’t always DNA or other physical evidence to prove guilt with 99.9 percent certainty. Jurors often have to rely on witnesses whose field of vision may have been limited — and whose recall, imperfect to begin with, degrades over time. Even when there’s no “reasonable doubt” about the defendant’s guilt — the standard for conviction — there’s often some measure of doubt.
And there are questions of process. Were witnesses coerced into testifying against Davis? A few say now that they were. Did prosecutors prove their case? The jurors certainly believed they did. Could racial bias have been a factor? Unlikely, given that the jury included seven blacks and five whites. Should Davis’s attorney have done a better job of presenting a defense? Almost surely.
It’s a mixed bag. I can’t ignore the fact that over the years, not one of the many judges who examined the case concluded there had been a true miscarriage of justice. This suggests to me that Davis was probably guilty.
But “probably” isn’t good enough in a capital case — and this is why the death penalty is flawed as a practical matter. Someone who is wrongly imprisoned can always be released, but death — to state the obvious — is irrevocable.
In scores of cases across the country, newly examined DNA evidence has proved that inmates jailed for rape or other sexual crimes were in fact not guilty. It is not just likely but certain that some defendants now on death row are innocent. Even if only one is eventually executed, that will be a tragic and unacceptable abuse of state power.
There was a chilling moment in a recent GOP candidates’ debate when Texas Gov. Rick Perry was asked about having authorized 234 executions, more than any other governor in modern U.S. history. The crowd, drawn largely from Tea Party ranks, cheered this record as if it were a great accomplishment. “I’ve never struggled with that at all,” Perry said, referring to execution as “the ultimate justice.”
But he should struggle with it. We all should.
By: Eugene Robinson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, September 22, 2011
We heard plenty of contradictions, distortions and untruths at the Republican candidates’ Tea Party debate, but we heard shockingly little compassion — and almost no acknowledgement that political and economic policy choices have a moral dimension.
The lowest point of the evening — and perhaps of the political season — came when moderator Wolf Blitzer asked Ron Paul a hypothetical question about a young man who elects not to purchase health insurance. The man has a medical crisis, goes into a coma and needs expensive care. “Who pays?” Blitzer asked.
“That’s what freedom is all about, taking your own risks,” Paul answered. “This whole idea that you have to prepare and take care of everybody. . . .”
Blitzer interrupted: “But Congressman, are you saying that society should just let him die?”
There were enthusiastic shouts of “Yeah!” from the crowd. You’d think one of the other candidates might jump in with a word about Christian kindness. Not a peep.
Paul, a physician, went on to say that, no, the hypothetical comatose man should not be allowed to die. But in Paul’s vision of America, “our neighbors, our friends, our churches” would choose to assume the man’s care — with government bearing no responsibility and playing no role.
Blitzer turned to Michele Bachmann, whose popularity with evangelical Christian voters stems, at least in part, from her own professed born-again faith. Asked what she would do about the man in the coma, Bachmann ignored the question and launched into a canned explanation of why she wants to repeal President Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus told the Pharisees that God commands us to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” There is no asterisk making this obligation null and void if circumstances require its fulfillment via government.
Bachmann knows a lot about compassion. She makes much of the fact that she and her husband took in 23 foster children over the years. But what of the orphaned or troubled children who are not lucky enough to find a wealthy family to take them in? What of the boys and girls who have stable homes but do not regularly see a doctor because their parents lack health insurance?
Government can reach them. But according to today’s Republican dogma, it must not.
Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, Bachmann, Paul and the others onstage in Tampa all had the same prescription for the economy: Cut spending, cut taxes and let the wealth that results trickle down to the less fortunate.
They betrayed no empathy for, or even curiosity about, the Americans who depend on the spending that would be cut. They had no kind words — in fact, no words at all — for teachers, firefighters and police officers who will lose their jobs unless cash-strapped state and local government receive federal aid. Public servants, the GOP candidates imply, don’t hold “real” jobs. I wonder: Do Republicans even consider them “real” people?
Government is more than a machine for collecting and spending money, more than an instrument of war, a book of laws or a shield to guarantee and protect individual rights. Government is also an expression of our collective values and aspirations. There’s a reason the Constitution begins “We the people . . .” rather than “We the unconnected individuals who couldn’t care less about one another . . . .”
I believe the Republican candidates’ pinched, crabby view of government’s nature and role is immoral. I believe the fact that poverty has risen sharply over the past decade — as shown by new census data — while the richest Americans have seen their incomes soar is unacceptable. I believe that writing off whole classes of citizens — the long-term unemployed whose skills are becoming out of date, thousands of former offenders who have paid their debt to society, millions of low-income youth ill-served by inadequate schools — is unconscionable.
Perry, who is leading in the polls, wants to make the federal government “inconsequential.” He thinks Social Security is a “Ponzi scheme” and a “monstrous lie.” He doesn’t much like Medicare, either.
But there was a fascinating moment in the debate when Perry defended Texas legislation that allows children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at state universities. “We were clearly sending a message to young people, regardless of what the sound of their last name is, that we believe in you,” Perry said.
The other candidates bashed him with anti-immigrant rhetoric until the evening’s only glimmer of moral responsibility was snuffed out.
By: Eugene Robinson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, September 15, 2011