When in Doubt

July 14, 2010

When is it OK for the state to put a prisoner to death?  We at Amnesty International of course say “Never”.  (And two-thirds of the world’s nations agree with us.)  At the other end of the spectrum, US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia says the state should be free to kill someone who has been convicted and sentenced to death in a “full and fair trial”, even if he can later show he is innocent.

The judge who presided over Troy Davis’ hearing in Savannah, GA, last month is likely to come down somewhere in the middle.  But where?  Amnesty International has just released a report that discusses Davis’ hearing and assesses what guidance there is internationally on this question. It turns out the world has a pretty common-sense suggestion for us.  If there is doubt about someone’s guilt, there should be no execution.

Of course the language of the Safeguards Guaranteeing Protection of the Rights of Those Facing the Death Penalty, adopted by the United Nations Economic and Social Council in 1984 and endorsed by the UN General Assembly, is a little wordier than that, but not much:

Capital punishment may be imposed only when the guilt of the person charged is based upon clear and convincing evidence leaving no room for an alternative explanation of the facts.

The Troy Davis case is buried in doubts.  Doubts from the witnesses whose recantations were are the heart of last month’s hearing, doubts from jurors (see pages 16-17), doubts from a former Georgia Supreme Court Justice who originally upheld his conviction, and even – with over 130 exonerations from death row since the 1970s – doubts about the reliability of the criminal justice system itself.

International opinion is slowly moving towards a consensus that all executions are an affront to human rights and human dignity, and an unacceptable abuse of power by the state.  Not everyone agrees with that yet, but for now can’t we at least agree that no one should be put to death when there is so much doubt?