On Georgia’s death row for more than two decades after being convicted of killing an off-duty police officer, Troy Davis was finally put to death recently after a barrage of actions to stave off his execution failed. What is alarming is that Davis’ conviction was based solely on eyewitness testimony of nine individuals, seven of whom later recanted… many citing intimidation by authorities and their youth at the time of the incident as accounting for their false statements which implicated Davis.
That police use threats to elicit statements and testimony from vulnerable individuals is not disputed by most observers of the criminal justice system in North Carolina and elsewhere. Such tactics were used to convict Glen Edward Chapman of two murders for which there was no forensic evidence linking Chapman to the crimes… crimes which he stated he did not commit. Specifically, two of his younger relatives falsely told investigators that Chapman confessed to them that he committed the crimes; claims which they later admitted were untrue and the result of duress applied by law enforcement officials.
Troy Davis refused to admit to taking the life of another… something that he maintained until he was put to death by the state of Georgia. More likely than not, Mr. Davis was truly innocent of the crime, and his insistence of maintaining his innocence is what most likely was responsible for his execution. Surely the case against Davis was extremely weak, at best. However, despite the hundreds of thousands of people in the United States and around the world who wanted his execution postponed to allow for closer scrutiny, the state of Georgia acted with Draconian expediency in moving forward with taking his life.
Unfortunately, the death penalty sentence and execution was carried out to appease and satiate the family of the fallen police officer, Mark MacPhail. Circumstances surrounding MacPhail’s death are tragic, in that he was coming to the assistance of an African American assault victim when he was shot and killed. I have great sympathy for the family of the courageous man, however I do not see how taking the life of an individual who is most likely innocent can assuage the grief. When the family members thirst for blood has ebbed and logic and common sense bring to light that they had a hand in the death of a man not responsible for their loved one’s death, their grief can only be compounded.
But it is prosecutors who benefit most by the death penalty. Many studies have shown that the threat of execution does little to deter the commission of murder. However, as has been shown recently in cases of Kenneth Kagonyera and Robert Wilcoxson, the threat of facing the death penalty can be a powerful incentive for innocent people to plead guilty to a crime that they did not commit. Both men confessed to second degree murder with full knowledge that they were innocent. Not only that, but the Buncombe County prosecutor Ron Moore withheld from the defense attorneys exculpatory DNA evidence prior to Kagonyera and Wilcoxson accepting the plea deal offered by the prosecution for confessing to second degree murder. Mark Rabil, a defense lawyer and co-director of the Innocence and Justice Clinic at the Wake Forest University School of Law said that the Kagonyera/Wilcoxson case is a prime example of how much the threat of capital punishment can distort the criminal justice system.
There are many innocent people in prison who have confessed to murder and other crimes in order to avoid receiving the death penalty. In addition, there are many innocent individuals on death row who steadfastly maintain their innocence in spite of a state sanctioned execution looming over their heads.
I am currently devoting much of my time working to help a man on North Carolina’s death row who I strongly believe is innocent of any capital crime. Nearly a year’s worth of research and investigation has gone into this project, and I hope to have a compelling and comprehensive flog documentary about it posted online within the next month or two. It will be a real eye-opener, and represent the best case yet for the abolishment of capital punishment.
The death penalty should be removed from the state’s arsenal of weapons used to get innocent people to plead guilty to crimes they did not commit. The fact that the death penalty is doled out disparately based on class and color is, alone, grounds for calling for its demise… especially since its execution is a finality which cannot be reversed. Financial considerations also fall on the side of doing away with the death penalty. But perhaps the strongest reason for abolishing the death penalty is because it is morally wrong. In a nation that prides itself on being religiously Christian, how can it justify taking the life of a man or a woman? What would the Man from Nazareth think?