The Common Good
December 2011

What's Wrong With Capital Punishment

by Rose Marie Berger | December 2011

No one could stop Troy Davis' execution -- despite his apparent innocence.

THE STATE OF Georgia executed Troy Davis at 10:53 p.m. on a Wednesday in September, by lethal injection. It took him 16 minutes to die. By the next morning there was fresh graffiti scrawled across a wall in my neighborhood: “Troy Davis was murdered.”

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Sometimes the very stones cry out.

Nearly a million people worldwide signed Amnesty International’s petition urging authorities in Georgia to commute Davis’ death sentence.

Davis spent 20 years—nearly half his life—on death row for a crime it’s doubtful he committed, and the penal system ground inexorably forward. No one could stop it. Not Davis’ family. Not lawyers, protesters, or petition signers. Not the six prison officials who expressed “overwhelming concern that an innocent person could be executed in Georgia.” Not the Georgia governor. Not former president Jimmy Carter, nor William Sessions, director of the FBI under President Reagan. Not even the pope. No one.

Davis addressed his final words to murder victim Mark MacPhail’s family who sat in the front row at the execution. “I know you all are still convinced that I’m the person who killed your father, your son, and your brother—but I am innocent ... I am so sorry for your loss. I really am. Sincerely.”

TROY DAVIS COULDN’T get a stay of execution—despite substantial new evidence supporting his innocence—in part because of the federal Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. The Act was part of the Republican “Contract with America” signed into law in 1996 by President Clinton, who was pushed to bring a speedy and lethal conclusion to domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh.

Under the Act, “federal courts are unable to grant relief despite meritorious substantive claims, including ... claims of racial bias in jury selection, ineffective assistance of counsel, and prosecutorial misconduct,” concludes the Constitution Project, which seeks substantial reform to the act. It reduces capital defendants to one, all-or-nothing, federal appeal. If the real killer publicly confessed and there was conclusive DNA evidence, it wouldn’t matter. Once a federal appeal has been denied, the death machinery must grind on. No matter what.

MORE THAN TWO-THIRDS of the countries in the world have abolished the death penalty in law or practice, according to Amnesty International. About one-third of the states, plus the District of Columbia, have abolished capital punishment. Yet the U.S. ranks fifth in the world for number of executions. Texas executes at a rate four times higher than the national average.

If the defendant is African American, the odds of receiving a death sentence are nearly four times higher than if he or she is white.

It’s in this context that Davis’ lawyer, Thomas Ruffin, declared Davis’ execution a “legalized lynching.” Racial bias in sentencing, determined the Supreme Court, is permitted as long as there is no “clear evidence of conscious discriminatory intent,” summarizes Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow. “Racial bias would be tolerated—virtually to any degree,” she writes, “so long as no one admitted it.”

I’M NOT SURE how many ways Americans can conclude that capital punishment is wrong and should be abolished.

Christians who are pro-life embrace a “womb-to-tomb” theology. As Ohio State Rep. Terry Blair, a Republican, puts it, “I don’t think we have any business in taking another person’s life, even for what we call a legal purpose ... The creeds of the church say that life is to be protected all along, from natural birth to natural death.”

Even pro-death penalty, conservative columnist George F. Will writes, “Capital punishment, like the rest of the criminal justice system, is a government program, so skepticism is in order.” Rapid-fire TV host John McLaughlin identified the death penalty as “the biggest government waste.”

In the moments before Davis was killed, he said to the guards, “To those who are about to take my life, may God have mercy on all of your souls. God bless you all.”

What will it take for the U.S. to join the family of nations who have once and for all abolished the death penalty? As Christians we condemn the culture of death. And whether the state uses a cross, a killing chair, or a lethal cocktail, we will choose life.

Rose Marie Berger, author of the book Who Killed Donte Manning?, is a Catholic peace activist and a Sojourners associate editor.

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