Troy Davis and the death penalty: the tale of flawed justice

Having spent twenty years behind bars and faced down 3 execution dates for the murder in 1989 of an off-duty police officer, Mark MacPhail – Troy Davis was executed on the night of the 21 September 2011.

Troy Davis.

Anti-death penalty campaigners, along with the European Union’s high commissioner have expressed “deep regrets” in what was a symbolic case in the continuing efforts to abolish capital punishment in the remaining states of the Union.

Yet the significant factor in the Troy Davis saga was undoubtedly the controversies that enshrouded the initial trial; flawed ballistic tests, non-existent DNA links to incriminate Davis, combined with the fact that out of the 9 original witnesses, 7 would later go on to retract their testimony and claim that they were subjected to police and judicial pressure, were indicative of a judicial vengeance that sought to act swiftly and repressively. Former convict now turned journalist, Erwin James argues that in a system of elected judges, combined with mass media interest, there is bound to be a level of pressure exerted on both lawyers and judges in protecting and serving their interest – yet when justice becomes driven by emotion rather than reason, where does one draw the fine line between vengeance and justice? It is men who make the justice system work, and like all men, they sometimes make mistakes.

From his years of incarceration to his last moments before execution – Davis continued to maintain his claims of innocence, which according to prison psychologist Steve Gassian, “Is incredibly difficult to maintain and repeat your innocence over the years, especially when you are guilty”.

Image from an 'I am Troy Davis' vigil.

For the Campaign to End the Death Penalty (CEDP), capital punishment in the US condemns the innocent to die – “the use of plea bargains and leniency in exchange for snitch testimony often results in the least guilty serving the most time. Often, police and prosecutors—-whether under pressure or in the effort to further their careers-—make quick arrests and ignore evidence that might point in another direction.”

The conviction and execution of a black man in the southern state of Georgia is, for the campaigners of the CEDP, a confirmation of the relationship between capital punishment, institutional racism and poverty; or put it bluntly, “capital punishment is racist”. While, African Americans constitute 12% of the total American population, 42% of death row inmates are black, this figure rises anywhere between 50-60% in states including North Carolina, Virginia, Mississippi, and Ohio.

Map of Executions 1608-2001 – The Guardian

Stephen Bright, author of “Neither Equal, Neither Just” argues that such trends are inextricably linked to poverty; 90% of defendants charged with capital crimes are not able to afford an experienced lawyer. For Bright, a major flaw of the system is that, “Good lawyers are a luxury, and many are reluctant or financially incapable or unwilling to defend ‘the poor’. As a result, the lawyers tasked to do so, are often overworked, inexperienced or overwhelmed.”

Furthermore, statistics have shown that the death penalty held no impact on crime rate. In fact, although 80% of executions take place in the Southern states, the “South” continues to have a higher murder rate than the North. In a study conducted by Thorsten Sellin on the patterns of crime in relation to the usage of the Death Penalty between 1989 and 2002 in California (1 death) Texas (239 executions) and New York (0) concluded in finding similar patterns of crime rates, with Death Penalty Champions Texas holding a slightly higher overall average figure.

roughsociety’s final word

Whether or not the United States will ever see a constitutional ban on the death penalty remains to be seen. In its report dedicated to the execution of Troy Davis, Foreign Policy ranked the world’s “top executioners” in accordance to the number of convicts executed per annum. Amongst the regulars, the United States stood as the only “western” and “democratic” nation to execute prisoners at a level that is on par with the likes of North Korea, China, Iran and Yemen.

For more- Death penalty statistics, country by country (The Guardian)

Death penalty statistics from the US: which state executes the most people? (The Guardian)

Sanders Arampamoorthy.


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