22 September 2011

On the Execution of Troy Davis

Georgia police officer Mark MacPhail was killed in 1989, and Troy Davis was prosecuted and convicted of the murder.  The case rested primarily on a previous history involving Officer MacPhail and Davis and witness testimonies that have since been recanted.  Bullets recovered at the scene matched bullets from another shooting in which Davis was charged but no forensic evidence exists to confirm that Davis held the gun in either instance.  His appeals exhausted, the Supreme Court of the United States denied clemency and tonight the state of Georgia executed Davis.

My feelings on the death penalty are well documented: I'm against it.  Not because I'm a bleeding heart liberal; I don't actually believe that all life is sacred (see my posts on Jack Kevorkian and Osama bin Laden, for instance).  I'm against the death penalty because of cases like this, where the existence of reasonable doubt is contingent upon one's emotional state.  If you believe that Davis had means (bullets matching another shooting to which he was connected) and motive (previous altercation with the victim), then it's pretty easy to connect the dots and content yourself that Officer MacPhail's death has been avenged.

Often, we hear "justice is blind" invoked cynically to suggest that our system is too blind to see the error of its ways, but the point was to guard against bias as best possible.  The consequences of a trial are serious, and the stakes get no higher than death.  These things should not be left in the hands of emotionally volatile family members or communities.  Hence, the blindness.  And if this case had been handled by blind(er) justice, I do not believe Troy Davis would have been executed tonight--certainly not on the merits of the case against him as it stands.

I can tell you, I grew up in a family that had buried a teenage son (my uncle).  His drowning was an accident.  My family has never recovered from his death and continues in its dysfunctional ways to this day.  I can tell you without hesitation that if there was someone to punish for his death, it would not bring my family peace.  I don't care how many Dirty Harry movies you've watched, there's no body count high enough to make the hurt go away.  That's assuming that you execute the correct person, and it's not clear at all that's what has taken place in Georgia.

The grieving process doesn't reach a conclusion with an execution.  Tonight, some will go to bed pleased with themselves and satisfied that a wrong-doer was punished.  But two months from now at Thanksgiving, they'll still have an empty chair at the table where their loved one used to sit.  Troy Davis's execution won't fill that seat.  There's no victory to be had here, unless your objective was merely to see an investigation culminate in an execution.

Tonight, people around the world have expressed outrage over Troy Davis's execution.  I don't know if he was guilty or not; what I do know is that there are reasonable questions to which there are no clear answers.  We cannot resurrect him should evidence emerge tomorrow that establishes the guilt of another party.

Which brings me to one more point, and that's that we really do need to expand civics classes in school.  Here's a mini-lesson for you.

You cannot prove innocence.

This is a sticking point for a lot of people too ignorant of logic and law for their own good.  There is no way to establish that someone didn't do something.  The best you can do is establish that the person did something else that makes it impossible they did something else.  For instance, you can prove I did go Barnes and Noble this past Sunday, and from that you can infer that I could not have also been the one to rob a bank at that same time on Sunday.  But you haven't actually proven I'm innocent of robbing the bank; you've only proven where I was and what I did do.  If this sounds like semantics, then you're not discerning or mature enough to have an informed opinion about something as important as the death penalty.

This is why we do not have a legal term for innocence.  A verdict is either "guilty" or "not guilty."  The question is, "Can you establish that this person did violate this law?"  I bring this up because Officer MacPhail's widow, Joan MacPhail-Harris, declared recently that Davis "has had ample time to prove his innocence."  There's not enough time in the world for someone prove innocence.  The burden of proof is on the prosecution, and Mrs. MacPhail-Harris's sentiment suggests that Davis was presumed guilty and should have convinced someone he wasn't.  That's the complete antithesis of our legal system--not because we're soft on crime, but because we're rational people who understand you cannot prove innocence.

I am alarmed that the outrage over Davis's execution is already giving rise to an anti-police backlash.  Was the investigation of MacPhail's killing likely a rush job conducted in anger and haste?  Almost certainly.  But to allow this to cast a pall over the entire institution of law enforcement would be an egregious mistake.  Police officers work a dangerous, difficult and often thankless job.  Are there abuses of power?  Of course there are, and they should be confronted and exposed.  I'm not excusing the dubious work of Officer MacPhail's colleagues; there are serious doubts about what little evidence they collected, and it's not hard to imagine that Davis was merely a fall guy.  But to conflate anger over this specific case with a broader, anti-police sentiment is a mistake I hope people do not make.

I have nothing but respect for those brave men and women who risk their lives on a daily basis every time they put on their work clothes and leave the house.  They already have remorseless criminals defying them, overwhelmed prosecutors cutting deals that undermine their work and politicians campaigning that they're overpaid.  The last thing they need is for the public for whom they endure all that to turn against them, too.