Troy Davis is dead by the hand of the state. He was passing his years on death row since 1991, when he was convicted for the murder of Savannah policeman Mark MacPhail. MacPhail had been working a security shift at a Burger King restaurant when he went to intervene to break up a scuffle between several men in a car park. It proved fatal. Witnesses came forth in number claiming that Davis had confessed to MacPhail’s slaying. Others claimed they had seen him use the weapon. But the murder implement miraculously vanished. As, it seems, did the forensic evidence.
The edifice built around the Davis case was already built on sand. The sinking started to take place as the inordinately long appeals process got underway, though state and federal courts persistently refused the granting of a retrial. Seven of the nine witnesses subsequently withdrew or altered the accounts they had previously made. The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles, though they were not swayed on this one and last time, had issued a stay of execution in 2007 claiming that it would ‘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.’
In June 2010, an extraordinary hearing was ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court. Attorneys representing Davis presented evidence to a federal judge painting a grim picture of police coercion and cooked evidence. In one affidavit, a witness spoke of how, ‘I am not proud for lying at Troy’s trial, but the police had me so messed up that I felt that’s all I could do or else I would go to jail’ (Huffington Post, Sep 15). Judge William T. Moore Jr. was not convinced, making it onerous for a person convicted by jury to challenge the claim. ‘A federal court simply cannot interpose itself and set aside a jury verdict in this case absent a truly persuasive showing of innocence.’ Moore sensed chaos if that were otherwise.
The role retributive vengeance plays in state executions is a permanent function that keeps cruelty alive and well in the system. And the monster that the state tends to be in this situation is cold and calculating, inflicting death in a remorseless manner. As Eugene Kane noted in the Journal Sentinel (Sep 24), quoting the ever sharp Albert Camus, capital punishment is ‘the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal’s deed, however calculated it may be, can be compared’.
When this image is challenged – take the bountiful eve-of-execution meal request by Lawrence Russell Brewer – outrage follows. Cosy preliminaries are unacceptable. ‘It is extremely inappropriate to give a person sentenced to death such a privilege,’ railed Senator John Whitmire, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee (First Post, Sep 23).
The death penalty has its avid followers, and some countries who have long abolished will occasionally throw up a candidate who praises it. Britain, for one, can boast the endorsements of Tory MP Priti Patel, who has claimed that killing innocents may still act as a deterrent.
US states like Wisconsin, which prides itself on a progressive streak, will still register an overwhelming sentiment in bringing back the death penalty when put to the vote. (That took place in a 2006 referendum, though the results were non-binding.) A Republican majority in Madison might decide to move on the issue, having already undertaken strict measures against collective bargaining, and the introduction of concealed-carry gun laws (Journal Sentimental, Sep 24).
Davis had become something of a cause celebre, a flashpoint in the death penalty wars. Pope Benedict XVI made a plea for Davis’ life. Former President Jimmy Carter joined the chorus. Former director of the FBI William S. Sessions claimed that the cloud of doubt was simply too thick, that the clemency function could be exercised. But none of this saved Davis who may, in time, be posthumously exonerated.