While opposition to the death penalty is a common sentiment amongst leftists, I wasn’t firmly against the punishment for many years. Instead of considering the judicial system’s proven record of unfairly prosecuting people of color and the poor, I’d focused only on the high profile death penalty cases and simply hoped that Mumia would be freed and that those facing death in subsequent cases would receive fair trials. As awful as the possibility of a wrongful conviction could be, there are people who deserve to die, I rationalized. We just have to be better at figuring out who they are and who they aren’t.
That all changed two years ago, when I did a radio appearance in Philadelphia along with the brilliant and bold Marc Lamont Hill. This was in the days leading up to the death of John Allen Muhammad, so the discussion over the death punishment was a hot topic once again. As I had been a student at Howard during the DC sniper killings (and absolutely terrified for my life during that time), I had very strong emotions related to the case and was happy that this monster would be eliminated. However, after hearing to Dr. Hill’s impassioned and factually-supported argument against capital punishment, I left the studio that day with a very different perspective. He spoke of the disproportionate rate of Black males executed compared to other groups, the many cases in which a sentenced person had been proven innocent by the relatively new technology used to reveal DNA evidence and the simple reality that is human fallibility- something which is far too dangerous to play with when we’re talking about ending a human life with the government’s blessing. All things I’d heard before, but brought home in a way that finally connected.
The case of Troy Davis illuminates even further the need to stop trusting the lives of this country’s alleged criminals to the uncertain hands of local government. Accused of fatally shooting an off-duty police officer in Georgia in 1989, Davis was granted a stay in execution in 2007: “[The Board] will not allow an execution to proceed in this State unless and until its members are convinced that there is no doubt as to the guilt of the accused.” Yet, despite the fact that seven out of nine state witnesses to the crime have recnated their stories, others have implicated a different shooter, the police failed to investigate another important figure in the case as a possible suspect and new physical evidence which further challenges the guilt of Troy Davis has been released…he is scheduled to be put to death this Wednesday.
Many of you have likely heard of The Innocence Project, a non-profit legal clinic at Yeshiva University which has worked to exonerate inmates who were facing death in the wake of the introduction of DNA evidence in criminal trials. Since 1973, a total of 138 people in this country have been exonerated after being sentenced to death, with seventeen being cleared thanks to DNA evidence. How many others could have been saved? How many innocent people have been killed?
State and local governments have made no secret of their inability to fairly prosecute Black men and women. The prison industrial complex has made our incarceration lucrative, as public perception of us remains challenged by pervasive stereotypes and deep-seated feelings of hatred and lack of understanding. Race aside, no government in the modern world has proven to be above making mistakes when it comes to trying and punishing its citizens…so with that, can you rightfully say that you are okay with the idea of our particularly flawed and fallible legal system (one that can be called “racist” by any real textbook definition) continuing to have the right to put people to death?
Today, Troy Davis will again ask a judge for clemency and for him to not release him from prison, but to simply allow him to continue living as a prisoner. If he is innocent, that means that he has been in jail for over twenty years for a crime that he did not commit. As the NAACP’s campaign to save Davis’ life charges, there is “too much doubt” at hand for him to now lose what is left of his existence. And there is too much certainty, when it comes to the flaws of our legal system, to make any reasoned argument to continue the death penalty in this country.
For more information about Troy Davis’ fight, check out the NAACP’s page devoted to his case.