Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Bad Call

This is a tough morning for those of us who support the death penalty.  On the same day that a white supremacist who dragged a black man behind his pickup truck is put to death for his heinous crimes, a black man who very well may have been falsely accused in the death of a white police officer is also executed.

The case of Lawrence Brewer in Texas represents the very reason capital punishment needs to be an option in the US.  Brewer is one of three men who picked up James Byrd, Jr along a country road back in 1998--chained him to the back bumper of his pickup truck--and dragged him behind the vehicle for two miles--leaving a trail of body parts and blood.  Even as he faced the lethal injection, Brewer had no apology to offer for what he had done.  Tell me, how would we be a better society for having Lawrence Brewer still alive and sitting in a prison cell eating three square meals a day, watching TV and interacting with other hardcore racists in a Texas prison?  I don't think we would be any better than we are for having put him to death.

And then you have the much more ballyhooed case of Troy Davis--an African-American man found guilty of killing a white off-duty police officer in Georgia back in 1989.  Seven of the nine people who testified against Davis have since recanted or changed their versions of what happened that night--leading many to question whether the death penalty is fair punishment in the case.  And I happen to agree.

I'm sure those who took more than just a few pre-law classes will tell me this isn't the way things work, but I would have preferred seeing those who have recanted or changed their stories charged with perjury or obstruction of justice--beacuse isn't that what they are admitting to have done?  If in those seven trials convictions are brought back by juries, that should provide compelling evidence to appeals courts that perhaps a new trial is warranted--with the "corrected versions of the facts" being presented.  Unfortunately, affidavits of now-admitted-liars were all that appeals attorneys had to use and a number of courts rejected them.

Juries are instructed to convict only if they feel a defendant is "guilty beyond a reasonable doubt".  In death penalty cases the standard for the punishment itself needs to be "beyond a shadow of a doubt".  Yes, it will mean fewer executions I'm sure--but that is much better than the possibility of putting an innocent man to death.  The lone solace we can take from last night is that even the most liberal members of the Supreme Court--Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Sonia Sotomayor--did not dissent to the denial of Davis's last minute plea for clemency--and how many times have we been told they have the best grasp of the law in the land?

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