Never mind the fact that during the 17th century, when the public hanging of pickpockets drew throngs to cities in England, pockets in the crowd were being picked as the trap door was being sprung … thus disproving the canard that the death penalty prevents crime; never mind the fact that the region of this country with the highest execution rate—the South—also has the highest murder rate; and never mind the fact that the Death Penalty Center’s website states that blacks who kill whites are 16.4 times as likely to be executed as whites who kill blacks … state-sanctioned murder in this country is obviously as American as apple pie.
The controversial execution of Troy Anthony Davis took place late Wednesday night after the U.S. Supreme Court considered and then denied a last-minute delay of execution filed by Davis’s attorneys as they pleaded for time to prepare another appeal. His execution had been stayed three previous times.
After again maintaining his innocence, Davis uttered his last words to his executioners: “For those who are about to take my life, may God have mercy on your souls … may God bless your souls.” He was pronounced dead at 11:08 p.m.
The TV screen has been filled with live images of hundreds of anxious, emotional Davis supporters massed across the street from the prison, which had been cordoned off by a line of law enforcement officers clad in full riot gear. Thousands of other supporters gathered in cities around the world. If there were pro-death penalty advocates present at the prison, they were not shown by the TV cameras.
In 1991, Davis was convicted of the 1989 killing of Savannah, Ga., police officer Mark MacPhail. There was no conclusive forensic evidence to tie him to the crime, and of the nine witnesses who said they saw Davis pull the trigger, seven have since recanted. A number of them now say police coerced them into giving false testimony on the witness stand, and of the two who have not recanted, one is a man other witnesses have identified as the real killer.
Davis’s supporters have steadfastly maintained that the recanting of sworn testimony, coupled with the lack of physical evidence in the case, raised serious doubts as to his guilt, and death-penalty opponents will undoubtedly seize on the fact that an irreparable mistake might have been made when the state took his life.
More than 1 million individuals from around the world signed petitions in support of the condemned man, and organizations such as Amnesty International and the NAACP had taken up his cause over the years. Additionally, a host of prominent civic, religious, and political leaders, including former President Jimmy Carter, Pope Benedict XVI, the Rev. Al Sharpton, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and former FBI director and judge William S. Sessions, all called upon the court to grant Davis a new trial, or at the very least an evidentiary hearing—to no avail.
More than any other execution in recent memory—perhaps with the exception of Mumia Abu Jamal, who sits on death row in a Pennsylvania prison—the Davis case effectively held a mirror up to the American psyche and revealed a nation deeply divided over the death penalty. Remarkably, the issue of race had not reared its ugly head in the case, since seven of the original jury members were African-Americans. But three of them said they would not have voted to convict Davis if they knew back then what they know today.
The fact that MacPhail was a police officer could have played a role in the state’s steely determination to put Davis to death, but death-penalty opponents maintain that the process is inherently flawed in all cases, if for no other reason than that few poor or middle-income people can afford the hundreds of thousands of dollars required to put on an adequate death-penalty defense. The state, they maintain, has unlimited resources that tip the scales of justice in prosecutors’ favor.
Both sides in the Davis case laid claim to the same mantra: justice. The family of the slain officer sent a message out of the death chamber before the execution that after 22 years they deserved justice, while Davis’s supporters said they wanted his life spared for the same reason: justice. But both sides could not have been right.
Perhaps the most important voices in this life and death matter—the voices of experience—weighed in Wednesday morning. Six retired, formerly high-ranking corrections officials, including Dr. Allen Ault, the retired director of the Georgia Department of Corrections and former warden of the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, sent a letter to Georgia corrections officials and Gov. Nathan Deal asking them to urge the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to reconsider the decision they made Tuesday, Sept. 20, to deny Davis clemency.
They cited serious concerns about his guilt:
“Like few others in this country, we understand that you have a job to do in carrying out the lawful orders of the judiciary. We also understand, from our own personal experiences, the awful lifelong repercussions that come from participating in the execution of prisoners. While most of the prisoners whose executions we participated in accepted responsibility for the crimes for which they were punished, some of us have also executed prisoners who maintained their innocence until the end. It is those cases that are most haunting to an executioner.
“We write to you today with the overwhelming concern that an innocent person could be executed in Georgia tonight. We know the legal process has exhausted itself in the case of Troy Anthony Davis, and yet, doubt about his guilt remains. This very fact will have an irreversible and damaging impact on your staff. Living with the nightmares is something that we know from experience. No one has the right to ask a public servant to take on a lifelong sentence of nagging doubt, and for some of us, shame and guilt. Should our justice system be causing so much harm to so many people when there is an alternative?
“We urge you to ask the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to reconsider their decision. Should that fail, we urge you to unburden yourselves and your staff from the pain of participating in such a questionable execution to the extent possible by allowing any personnel so inclined to opt-out of activities related to the execution of Troy Anthony Davis. Further, we urge you to provide appropriate counseling to personnel who do choose to perform their job functions related to the execution. If we may be of assistance to you moving forward, please do not hesitate to call upon any of us.”
In addition to Allen Ault, the letter was signed by Terry Collins, retired director, Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (Full disclosure: Collins and I partner in a nonprofit program in which we go into prisons and other venues around the state and give seminars on prisoner reentry); Ron McAndrew, retired warden, Florida State Prison; Dennis O’Neill, retired warden, Florida State Prison; Reginald Wilkinson, retired director, Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction; and Jeanne Woodford, retired warden, San Quentin State Prison.
Their letter failed to persuade the Supreme Court, but these are the voices of reason and experience we all should be listening to and heeding in America as the death-penalty debate moves forward—as it no doubt will.