Troy Davis Executed Despite Serious Doubts About His Guilt
Late Wednesday night, Troy Davis (pictured at right) was executed by the state of Georgia for the murder of Savannah, GA, police officer Mark MacPhail. As this space has written before, Officer MacPhail’s death was a tragedy. But that does not excuse Wednesday’s tragedy: the miscarriage of justice that resulted in Davis’ execution.
Davis was convicted largely on the strength of a series of nine witnesses for the prosecution. Seven of those witnesses have since recanted their testimony, some citing police pressure to testify during the initial trial. Others have come forward and stated that they saw another man, rather than Davis, shoot and kill Officer MacPhail. The doubt around Davis’ conviction is such that figures as diverse as former President Jimmy Carter and one-time FBI Director William Sessions have called for clemency.
But none of this stopped Wednesday’s tragedy.
Although Biblical law mandates the death penalty for 36 offenses, ranging from murder to kidnapping, adultery to incest, certain forms of rape, and other crimes, the Reform Movement follows rabbinic interpretations that made applying the death penalty nearly impossible and effectively abolished it centuries ago.
The circumstances surrounding Troy Davis’ case, with witnesses recanting their testimony, brings to mind the Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5, which stresses the importance of presenting completely accurate testimony in capital cases because any mistakes or falsehoods could result in the shedding of innocent blood. The passage likens wrongful executions to Cain killing Abel, concluding that “it is for this reason that God created only one human in the beginning, a token that he who destroys one life, it is as though he had destroyed all humankind, whereas he who preserves one life, it is as though he preserved all humanity.”
As a nation, today we must take a long look in the mirror and ask ourselves what comes next. We can shake our heads in sorrow and wax eloquent about the injustice that took place, only to turn our attentions elsewhere in a matter of days, allowing our country to continue applying the death penalty, even with all of its obvious flaws.
Let us instead dedicate our passion, as Robert F. Kennedy borrowed from classicist Edith Hamilton, to “tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.” Let us work together to reduce the conditions that breed violence and fix our criminal justice system, for there can be no greater way to ensure that a day comes soon when there are no more cases like that of Troy Davis. That brighter tomorrow cannot come soon enough.
But today, that does not stop the pain from Wednesday night’s tragedy.
Ian Hainline is a 2011-2012 Eisendrath Legislative Assistant.