Capital Punishment Is Wrong, Unfair

This is a rewrite.

In the column originally prepared for this space, I said that Troy Davis was scheduled to die Monday -- to be killed, actually, by an executioner for the state of Georgia.

But -- stop the presses! -- that's no longer accurate. On Monday, Davis, 40, will still be alive. Or at least, he won't be dead because of anything the state did. That's because on Friday, an appeals court granted him a stay.

This is Davis' third stay, his third hairsbreadth escape from execution. If there is any justice, it will be his last. Meaning not that he will be killed, but that he won't, that the state of Georgia will finally come to its senses.

Davis was convicted in the 1989 death of Mark MacPhail, an off-duty Savannah police officer who was trying to break up a parking lot altercation when he was shot. But Davis is connected to the crime by no forensic evidence whatsoever.

He stands condemned solely on the word of nine witnesses, seven of whom have since recanted. Two of the seven say they were intimidated into lying by police. Of the two who have not recanted, one is a man named Sylvester Coles, who is said by some witnesses to be the real shooter.

For many of you this is an old story. I've written about it before as have others. Luminaries like Jimmy Carter and the pope have also spoken out on Davis' behalf. Is it too much to hope somebody will finally listen?

Understand: I oppose the death penalty for many reasons.

  • In the first place, it is biased by race: Offenders whose victims were white are more likely to be put death than those whose victims were of some other race.
  • In the second place, it is biased by gender: Male offenders are more likely to be put to death than females who commit similar crimes.
  • In the third place, it is biased by class: Those who can afford high-priced lawyers are more likely to escape execution (paging O.J. Simpson) while those who can't are more apt to wind up in the death house.
  • In the fourth place, it has no deterrent effect.
  • In the fifth place, it is more expensive than the alternative: Life in prison without parole.
  • In the sixth place, it is wrong -- and not just wrong, but crude, cruel and immoral. No government should arrogate unto itself the right to put its citizens to death.

But you know what? Put all those reasons aside. Because the thing that troubles me more than all of them combined, the thing that makes Davis' case an abomination, is the simple possibility, indeed, the likelihood, that we will get it, have already gotten it, flat-out wrong.

Who can doubt? There are few things less perfect than human beings, after all, yet that's what is required for anyone to feel even marginally sanguine about this custom of state-sponsored death: perfection. We need to believe that in this most somber of endeavors, unlike in all others, human beings will somehow magically make no mistakes, get everything right, be flawless.

I would not wager the change in my sofa cushions on the ability of government to spell my name without error. Yet day after day, we blithely wager the lives of other people on the ability of government to administer justice without error.

It's a delusion that does not bear scrutiny; if you look too closely, the facade cracks and you are forced to ponder what's being done in your name. So most of us would, I expect, look the other way, think not too long upon it, if Troy Davis were put to death, proclamations of innocence on his lips as they have been for almost 20 years.

Maybe you're telling yourself, Pitts has no idea whether Davis is innocent or not. Well, you're right. I don't know; you don't know. And that's the point.

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