The Death Penalty. How have we let it go so far?

Those of you who have been in one of Professor Mackin’s classes with me know what it means when I write a blog post.  You are probably going to get a ridiculously long, hysterical rant about something that has really struck a nerve with me, while still being something most of you won’t care about (last year my longest was 2400 words, or about 8 double spaced pages on the role of prophecy in literature).  This time, maybe, things may be a little different.  As I am sitting down to write this blog post, it is 1:10 AM on Thursday, September 22.  Just 2 hours and 2 minutes ago, Troy Davis was executed by the state of Georgia.

I will begin by going over my own view on the death penalty.  As recently as April, I had no problem with state executions, something to which Professor Mackin can attest based on an argument we had when several of his students met him for dinner at the end of the semester.  It was my view that there are some crimes that should be met by the most severe penalty that we have at our disposal.  I had a very Rousseau-ian conception of the Death penalty, which is discussed in Book 2, chapter 5 of The Social Contract, beginning on page 35.  To honor the importance of our law, betrayers of state secrets and some murderers should be executed because they, as part of the general will, don’t want to die.  Its just important to use it sparingly because as Rousseau would argue, too many executions shows that a government is weak.  I had even more conviction in this before I realized how much money the appeal process for a death sentence costs.  Over the last few weeks, as I have been following the Troy Davis story, I have mellowed out on this, my most conservative viewpoint.  At this point, I am deeply disturbed by the Death Penalty.  Does it have it merits?  Maybe.  Do the negatives outweigh those merits?  Beyond any amount of doubt, they do.  I have come to realize that capital punishment in the United States should take away any credibility we hold internationally.  However, several points must be made before I can continue on this specific topic.

In 1989, Troy Davis allegedly shot and killed a cop at a fast food restaurant.  He was convicted by a Georgia court and sentenced to death.  After a slew of appeals, and being denied clemency twice, Mr. Davis found himself strapped to a gurney for 4 hours last night, waiting for one more appeal that may save his life, despite the fact that 7 of 9 witnesses to the crime recanted their testimony, stating that the police coerced them into testifying against Davis.  Even more enraging is that one of the two remaining witnesses is rumored to have confessed to the murder Davis was executed for.  The U.S Supreme Court denied the appeal, and after 4 hours, Davis was given his lethal injection.  (for more about the Troy Davis case , check out http://www.troyanthonydavis.org/legal-process.html.  This site has some pretty good info about the legal proceedings.) There are many things about that situation that are cruel and unusual.  Imagine being strapped down to what is essentially your death-bed for 4 hours, waiting on a court’s decision that will decide whether or not you ever get to move again.  Not the way I would want to spend my final hours.  What strikes me the most, however, is how many Americans view the death penalty.

At one of the Republican debates this month, a statistic was given about capital punishment during Rick Perry’s time as the Governor of Texas.  Here is the question from Brian Williams of NBC: “Your state has executed 234 Death Row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times.  Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?”  Of course, the ignorant the Tea party’s followers, each of whom is, to me, a pathetic excuse for a human being that truly gives merit to arguments against the common person having a say in government, explode into tumultuous applause in the middle of the question.  And of course, Perry responds in his thickest southern accent (can you say FAKE?): “No, sir, I’ve never struggled with that at all.  The State of Texas has a very thoughtful, a very clear process in place of which someone commits the most heinous of crimes against our citizens.  They get a fair hearing; they go through an apell (surely he meant an appeal process, but I don’t like him, so I am going to leave the slip-up) process, they go up to the Supreme Court of the United States if that’s required.  But in the state of Texas, if you come into our state, and you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, or you are involved with another crime and you kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas, and that is you will be executed.”  Again, the tea-party rodents burst into applause.

What I want to know is why no one mentions the case of a man named Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed for a triple homicide as a result of arson.  A great article, written by David Grann on this case can be found at http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/09/07/090907fa_fact_grann?currentPage=7.

John Stewart Mill is referenced on page 9 of the article, where he is quoted defending the death penalty as proof of the value of life.  He does, however, argue that the one point against the death penalty is that if you execute an innocent, it can never be taken back.  I strongly encourage that you read the article.  It is a very powerful piece, but at times can be a little overwhelming.  It is also quite long, but well worth the time.

Here is a synopsis of why the Willingham case was so mishandled.  Testimony given by a so-called “expert” on sociopathic cases turned out to be given by a psychologist who had never met the defendant, had never published in the area of sociopath behavior, was an expert in marital problems, and was a close friend of one of the chief prosecutors.  The other expert was a man known as “Doctor Death” because his testimony usually led to a death sentence.  Turns out that Doctor Death had been thrown out of the American Psychiatric Association for giving psychiatric diagnoses without first examining the people in question.  These two men claimed that Willingham was a sociopath based on a tattoo he had of a snake and skull, and Iron-Maiden poster, and said that no medication could cure his condition.  Another key witness in the trial was what is known as a jailhouse informant, who is an inmate who claims that the defendant told him of their crime while in prison.  In this case, the inmate in question claimed that Willingham started the fire in order to cover up that his wife had hit one of the kids.  The informant, a man named Webb, later filed to recant his testimony, stating that Willingham was innocent.  Also, there was no forensic evidence that any of the 3 daughters had been hit.  One of the many things that weren’t considered in the case was the testimony of an expert on arson named Dr. Gerald Hurst.  According to the article, to be an arson investigator, all you needed was a 40 hour course on the topic.  No degree required.  Hurst stated that most Arson investigators treated their field as more of an art than a science, and thereby, many cases were based on unscientific evidence.  They use what he calls the flat-earth approach, meaning “if it looks like arson, its arson.”  After investigating the case,  Hurst said that the same held true for the Willingham trial (this section, the most telling of Willingham’s innocence starts on page 11.  If you read no other section, please read this). Hurst used sound science to disprove all of the prosecutions determinations about the fire.  He concluded that there was no evidence of arson, and because there had never been an established motive, Willingham should have been set free.  The Texas board of pardons and paroles failed to overturn the sentencing.  Willingham’s last hope was Governor Perry, who could delay the execution by 30 days.  Perry denied the stay of the execution based on “the facts of the case”.  Rick Perry, the front-runner for the Republican nomination, had an innocent man murdered while he had the facts in front of him.  And if all of that isn’t bad enough, that decision only strengthens Perry’s candidacy among radical right-wingers.  I feel sick to my stomach.  And he still says that he can sleep at night.

As I mentioned above, the only thing Mill dislikes about the Death Penalty is that there is a chance that an innocent may be executed.  Despite overwhelming evidence for Willingham’s innocence, Mill’s fears were realized, and justice was dealt a devastating blow.  Rousseau’s qualms with the death penalty have also been realized in this country.  The high number of executions that take place in the United States would lead Rousseau to believe that we have a weak government.  My own view of this is not that we have a weak government (that may be true, but I don’t think that the use of capital punishment is the cause).  Our government is, for some reason, stuck in the past.  The death penalty is becoming obsolete in the civilized world.

It has been said that the United States is the only 1st world country that still uses capital punishment.  While this is not necessarily true, one only needs to look at the list of countries that carried out the most executions last year to understand the point (numbers are from Amnesty International).  The leader is China, who according to BBC have not officially given a total number, but is estimated to be in the thousands.  Next is Iran at over 250 executions, followed by North Korea and Yemen, who both totaled between 50 and 60.  Coming in 5th is the United States of America, at 46, or almost 1 every week.  That’s right, only China, Iran, North Korea, and Yemen executed more citizens last year than the country that claims to lead the free world.  It is even worse when you see a list of countries that executed fewer people: Saudi Arabia (27), Libya (18), Syria (17), Bangladesh (9), Somalia (8), Sudan (6), and Iraq (1).  Notably absent from the list are the countries that most Americans (based on my own perceptions) would call our country’s closest allies: Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia (that’s right, less than 35 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russians are no longer executing people, while the U.S still is), and Canada.  Another horrifying factoid is that not all of the executions in the U.S were by a lethal injection.  A man in Utah was killed by a firing squad, and a man in Virginia was fried in an electric chair.  There is a great hypocrisy in all of this.  How can the United States of America claim to be the leader of the free world when it is so far behind in such a major human-rights issue?

It has been a week since I began this blog post.  The research that I have done has only strengthened my newfound resolve in this specific topic.  Troy Davis last words were his final proclamation of his innocence.  He was killed shortly thereafter.  Since then, many people have called for a continuation of the fight that was stirred up by this gross miscarriage of justice.  And fight on we shall, because we are compelled to.  This issue will not go away.  Too many Americans, including major political players, so thirst for violence that they are willing to tarnish this entire nation’s dignity and international credibility, not to mention throw away billions of dollars for appeal cases.  Even more upsetting is that people with the responsibility of informing people of world events say things like “One Troy Davis Flame-Broiled Please,” as Anne Coulter so eloquently put it on her Twitter account (if you don’t believe me, follow the link http://www.indecisionforever.com/2011/09/22/troy-davis-executed-ann-coulter-still-on-the-loose/).  People like Anne Coulter are a topic for another post, however.  In closing, rest in peace Troy Davis.  Hopefully the tragedy that ended your life will help bring about change in the American social landscape.  You are a martyr for the cause of justice.

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