What If Troy Davis Was Innocent?

September 20, 2012

Protest execution Troy Davis
Troy Davis was executed by the State of Georgia in 2011 despite a strong case for innocence. © Scott Langley

If Troy Davis was innocent, the justice system failed and made murderers of us all. The state of Georgia ended Troy Davis’ life on behalf of its citizens and the federal courts, on behalf of all U.S. citizens, allowed it to happen.

Of course, murder is an unlawful homicide and execution is a lawful homicide.  So, technically speaking, we are not murderers because it is lawful in the United States to execute the innocent.  In Herrera v. Collins, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to rule that it would be unconstitutional for an innocent person to be executed as long as he or she had access to the judicial process.  Legal nonsense aside, Troy Davis’ blood is on all of our hands.

It is no wonder that a million signatures were amassed on petitions calling on Georgia to halt Troy Davis’ execution and that the media was all over the story.  Nobody wanted to have to answer the question, “Was Troy Davis innocent?” after the fact.  You didn’t have to be on the ground, like I was, outside the prison or at any of the number of demonstrations around the world the night of Troy Davis’ execution, to feel the palpable shockwave of disbelief.

carlos de luna
Carlos DeLuna was executed by the state of Texas in 1989. A new study by Columbia University could prove his innocence.

It seemed completely unreasonable to the average person who came to understand how the case against Troy had come unraveled that his execution wouldn’t be stopped.  And those more cynical about the reasonable nature of government could not believe that the state was willing to let its reputation take such a bad hit.

How could our government allow any room for doubt in a death penalty case?  And why do we have any kind of tolerance for the execution of the innocent?

If you’re skeptical that it happens, consider that 140 individuals have been exonerated from death row since 1973, fortunately escaping execution.  Former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor said to a group of lawyers in 2001:

“If statistics are any indication, the system may well be allowing some innocent defendants to be executed.”

We can also ask, “What if Cameron Todd Willingham or Carlos de Luna were innocent?”  Both executed in Texas.  There is compelling analysis of their cases that make it easy to conclude that they were.

Amnesty International got a lot of traction with Troy Davis’ case because innocence is perhaps the most compelling issue connected to the death penalty, and the facts backing up his innocence claim were compelling.  However, we sometimes got the question, “What if Troy Davis is guilty?”  We picked up his case because it was riddled with many problems that we see plaguing the application of the U.S. death penalty.  It was no wonder he had an innocence claim.  In the process of trying to prevent his execution, we were able to help people understand the reality of the broken death penalty.

At the end of the day, we’re in the struggle to end executions because we believe governments should not have the irreversible and terrible power over life.  The issue of innocence has helped us to make this point.  The good news is that we do not need the death penalty to be safe or to hold those who murder accountable.  Justice does not require that the blood of anyone, guilty or innocent, be on our hands.