The execution of an innocent person in repressive police states like China, Iran or North Korea is horrific enough, even if it comes as little surprise. And it shouldn’t shock anyone to know that this happens even in America today, though it’s difficult to accept that such a thing could happen in our own country, a first world nation, in the 21st century.
Troy Davis was convicted in 1991 of the murder of off-duty police officer Mark McPhail in Savanah, Georgia. McPhail was shot to death as he rushed to help a homeless man who was being beaten; prosecutors identified Davis as the assailant and the shooter. No conclusive forensic evidence connected him to the crime. Nine witnesses originally testified that they saw him pull the trigger. Since the trial, it has come to light that the police mishandled the interrogation of witnesses, manipulating them into identifying Davis as the killer and contaminating the evidence in the case. Seven of these have since recanted, and six say the police coerced them into identifying Davis as the killer. One of those who has not recanted has been identified by other witnesses as the real perpetrator. Three of the jurors who originally voted to sentence Davis to death now believe that vote was a mistake.
Hundreds of thousands of petitions calling for Davis’ life to be spared arrived at the Georgia Board of Parole and Pardons, including 26 signed by death-row exonerees and 110 by relatives of murder victims. Calls for Davis to be spared execution were made by Jimmy Carter, the Pope, a former FBI director, a former Supreme Court chief justice of Georgia and a former U.S. attorney general. Unfortunately, two decades worth of appeals, including an 11th hour appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States the evening of his execution, were all unsuccessful for Troy.
Before his execution by lethal injection, he proclaimed his innocence one last time, and told Officer McPhail’s family, who believed he was guilty, that he was sorry for their loss and that he was not responsible for McPhail’s death. His last words to his executioners were, “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.
Even if we were to agree that capital punishment is a morally acceptable practice and that every person who kills a police officer ought to be put to death, there’s still one problem with Troy’s execution: he almost certainly didn’t do it.
Even if he was guilty, which is highly unlikely, it is absolutely unacceptable to put a person to death if there’s any doubt as to their guilt. I know the law says “reasonable doubt,” but to paraphrase Atticus Finch, not even the tiniest bit of doubt ought to be allowed in the case of an execution. And in Troy’s case, there was far more than reasonable doubt.
A lynching is still a lynching, even if it’s state-sanctioned and court-approved.
America, the land of the free? Obviously not. But with all the voices that were raised in support of Troy, and the courage and dignity with which he faced his death, I think it’s still fair to say that we’re the home of the brave.
If only those brave ones sat in places of the cowards who would rather kill an innocent man that admit that the system is flawed. Rest in peace, Troy.