Yesterday, September 21, the state (specifically Georgia and Texas) executed two men who had been found guilty of murder. One, Troy Davis, became the eye of the storm for those who oppose the death penalty. The other, Lawrence Brewer, did not. Why?
Troy Davis, an African American male, was convicted for the shooting death of a white off-duty police officer, Mark MacPhail. The jury’s decision was based primarily on witness accounts. Mr. Davis has always proclaimed his innocence. There was no physical evidence linking him to the crime. And since then, most of the witnesses have recanted their testimony, many claiming that they had been coerced into making their damning statements. Many saw these developments as sufficient to raise reasonable doubts. And as the date of execution neared, ever-growing local, national and international protests condemned taking the life of an innocent man. Once the Supreme Court refused to issue a stay, and the execution was carried out, reaction to the state’s action was wide and swift. In the end, it seemed only Mr. MacPhail’s family and the court believed that the right action had been done. The strong public outcry focused on a gross miscarriage of justice.
In sharp contrast, there were no last minute legal maneuvering, mass protests, Facebook postings or bloggings regarding the death of Mr. Brewer. He was convicted in the dragging death of James Byrd, a crime so horrific that it stunned this country. Mr. Byrd, an older black man, had been gruesomely butchered by three white men with supremacist leanings (of the other two, one is on death row and the other serving a life sentence). Mr. Brewer made no final statement of innocence, indeed in an earlier interview he indicated that he just “wanted this over with.” And while he, at one time, tried to distance himself from coming up with the crime, he never denied participating. DNA evidence, in the form of Mr. Byrd’s blood, as well as eye witness accounts of placing Mr. Byrd with the three men, sealed the case. Aside from the most adamant death penalty opponents, there was little protest. Mr. Byrd’s family felt that this was a first step toward justice.
Do the different public reactions to these executions suggest that we can carry out the death penalty when there is no apparent doubt? Was Mr. Brewer’s crime so brutal and his beliefs so loathsome, that they give folks cover for the death penalty in some circumstances? Does the fact that he seemed to give into his fate matter?
I honestly don’t know the answer to these, and probably other questions. I do believe that the Troy Davis execution should have been stopped given the recanting of testimonies and the lack of physical evidence. This does not necessarily mean that I think Mr. Davis is innocent. I genuinely don’t know. And it certainly doesn’t mean that I think he’s a model citizen. But, for me, the doubts raised counter the irreversible death penalty. I am deeply troubled by his death and am left to wonder how people passively or actively participate in that process without being haunted.
Yet I can not muster up anything close to condemnation for the execution of Mr. Brewer. I would like to be able to say that in principle I oppose the death penalty. Period. But for some reason, I can’t, even though I don’t think it brings about closure or justice. I seem to want some wiggle room here (and I’m not proud of this) for crimes that are so beyond the pale that a “life for a life” seems to be the only way to go. Was this such a crime? Maybe. Probably. Is that the threshold for execution?
Is the execution of one innocent person, be he Troy Davis or someone else, sufficient to halt the process entirely? Who gets to make that call? How do we know when justice is served?