Troy Davis And Our Unfixable Death Penalty

April 13, 2011

It has been over four years since Amnesty International released its first report on the case of Troy Davis.  In that span of time, three states – New Jersey, New Mexico and Illinois – have abolished the death penalty, and 17 men have been exonerated from our nation’s death rows after their wrongful convictions were overturned.

Yet Troy Davis, whose innocence claim did finally get heard last summer, remains at serious risk of execution.  He was unable to prove his innocence to the standard required by the court, but the state of Georgia has been unable to remove doubts about his guilt.

It is a fact (and not a surprising one) that our criminal justice system is not perfect, and cannot resolve all questions before it, and it is interesting to note that all three governors who have signed abolition bills since 2007 cited this imperfection as a major reason for eliminating capital punishment altogether.

DECEMBER 2007, Governor Jon Corzine of New Jersey:

As Reverend King implored all mankind while accepting his Nobel Peace Prize – “Man must evolve, for all human conflict, a method of resolution which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation.” Today, New Jersey is truly evolving. We evolve, if you believe as I do, that government cannot provide a foolproof death penalty that precludes the possibility of executing the innocent.

MARCH 2009, Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico:

Even with advances in DNA and other forensic evidence technologies, we can’t be 100-percent sure that only the truly guilty are convicted of capital crimes. Evidence, including DNA evidence, can be manipulated. Prosecutors can still abuse their powers. We cannot ensure competent defense counsel for all defendants. The sad truth is the wrong person can still be convicted in this day and age, and in cases where that conviction carries with it the ultimate sanction, we must have ultimate confidence – I would say certitude – that the system is without flaw or prejudice. Unfortunately, this is demonstrably not the case.

MARCH 2011, Governor Pat Quinn of Illinois:

The evidence presented to me by former prosecutors and judges with decades of experience in the criminal justice system has convinced me that it is impossible to devise a system that is consistent, that is free of discrimination on the basis of race, geography or economic circumstance, and that always gets it right.

While abolition of the death penalty may not be right around the corner in Georgia (although it should be), these statements about the inevitability of mistakes in our capital punishment system ought to be enough to convince Georgia officials to at least halt executions where there is doubt that the state got it right.