9/22/2011

By Susannah Ostlund, J.D. Candidate

A decades-old case ultimately has ended with the execution of Troy Davis, an outcome that has rocked many people’s sense of fundamental justice.  Davis, a 42-year-old African-American man, was convicted in 1991 of murdering Mark MacPhail, a local police officer, and was given the death penalty.  After numerous appeals and three last-minute stays of execution, Davis’s time unfortunately ran out.  A decision by the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole to deny clemency early Tuesday morning sparked a wave of international outrage and disappointment, given the evidence that came to light in recent years tending to support Davis’s innocence.  At the original trial, the prosecution’s case rested solely on witness testimony, but at the time of the hearing on Monday, seven out of the nine witnesses for the prosecution had recanted or contradicted their testimony, many coming forward and admitting  they were coerced by strong-arm police tactics.[1]  Nine people signed sworn affidavits implicating another man as the murderer, Sylvester Coles.  Coles is one of only two witnesses who did not change their stories, as well as the man who originally reported Davis to the police.[2]  In a case where no murder weapon was found and no physical evidence ever tied Davis to the crime, was a death sentence really justified? 

Davis faced execution three times before his sentence ultimately was carried out on Wednesday, September 21, 2011.  Each previous time he received a last minute stay of execution.  Notably, his first stay of execution came from the same state parole board that denied him clemency in his final hearing, stating that the execution should not go forward unless every member of the five-person board was “convinced that there is no doubt as to the guilt of the accused.”[3]  Given their stance at the time of Davis’s initial execution date, one has to wonder what they know that the public doesn’t that now allows them to be convinced without a doubt of his guilt.

People across the globe signed petitions, held vigils and protests, and spoke out to express their disapproval in a system that would allow Davis to be executed in light of such serious doubt.  In a statement following the hearing Tuesday, a representative of Amnesty International said “Allowing a man to be sent to death under an enormous cloud of doubt about his guilt is an outrageous affront to justice. The case against Davis unraveled long ago."[4]  In particular, this case seems to have achieved its high-profile status due to the broad spectrum of people opposing his sentence.  Given the uncertainty of his conviction, people from all religious and political views have joined the cause, arguing that execution should not be the result under such circumstances, no matter ones beliefs about the death penalty generally.[5]

The “Too Much Doubt” campaign, aimed at protesting Davis’s sentence, wrote over half a million letters to the Georgia Board in opposition to Davis’s execution, and has received support from prominent public figures such as Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former FBI director William Sessions, former President Jimmy Carter, and Pope Benedict XVI.[6]  Following the Board’s decision, and throughout the day of his execution, horror and outrage were expressed via Twitter, making Davis a worldwide trending topic.[7] The opposition to Davis’s sentence extended further internationally than any case in recent years, predominantly because of what carrying out the death sentence amid such serious doubt says about the United States system of justice.  After clemency was once again denied following the Board hearing, international support for Davis reached a new high, with the Council of Europe urging that his sentence be commuted.   A representative of the Council’s Parliamentary Assembly, Renate Wohlwend, expressed the sentiment of thousands in stating, "To carry out this irrevocable act now would be a terrible mistake which could lead to a tragic injustice."[8]

The case of Troy Davis has ignited controversy and examination, not just because of the evidence that casts doubt on his conviction, but also because of the racial implications inherent in a case set in the Deep South, where a young black man is accused of killing a white police officer.  Statistically, black men are much more likely to be sentenced to death when the victim is white, whereas white perpetrators are less frequently sentenced to die for the murder of black victims.[9]  In a system that claims impartial application of the law, statistics that suggest race of the victim as the number one predictor of a death sentence should make anyone shudder.[10] Surely, many would argue that had this case involved the death of a young black man at the hands of a white police officer, the outcome and sentencing may have been different.  In a day and age where we profess to have moved into a new dawn of racial equality, cases like those of Troy Davis remind us that perhaps we have underestimated our own progress.  Undoubtedly, this case resonates with many as seeming to perpetuate the prejudicial sentiment that the death of a white man deserves more retribution and punishment, to the point where even faced with doubt, Troy Davis’s sentence had to be carried out.  To address this issue, the NAACP has stated that they plan to call for the Department of Justice to investigate the case as a violation of Davis’ civil rights, and will ask that the original police investigation and the legal proceedings that led to Davis’s conviction be evaluated.[11]

We may never know one way or the other whether Davis was ultimately guilty of the crime that led to his execution, but carrying out his sentence seems a risky chance to take in the face of even the slightest amount of uncertainty, much less the “enormous cloud of doubt” that surrounded this case.  Family members of the late Mark MacPhail have urged that they are not out for blood, but that Davis’s death will bring justice.[12]  To be sure, the death of Officer MacPhail was a tragedy of great magnitude, but when there is any doubt as to the certainty of a man’s conviction, and even a vague possibility exists of killing an innocent man, how is that justice?  If Davis really was innocent, as nine people swore that he was, his death only adds to the tragedy.  I may not believe in the death penalty, but I understand it.  I understand the urge to seek ultimate punishment for crimes of the utmost severity; however, the finality of a death sentence should never be appropriate for crimes where there is even a glimmer of doubt.  There is no justice in that.