The Virginia Verdict Review

Comprehensive and Informative Commentary on State and Federal Legal Matters

Guilty or Not, Davis Case Exemplifies the Problems With Capital Punishment in America

Over the last few days, I have read numerous articles, twitter comments, and blog posts passionately discussing last week’s execution of Georgia death row inmate Troy Davis.  For the death penalty or against it, it seems everyone has an opinion about this case and wants to broadcast it to the world.  While I am most certainly a proponent of free speech, as I read through the deluge of responses, I couldn’t help but think the wrong points were being debated.  Whether Troy Davis committed the crime for which he was charged or whether the 7 recanting witnesses constituted a credible change in evidence are not the key issues of the case, despite the fact that they grabbed the world’s attention.  Instead, the real question worth debating is whether the execution of Troy Davis was a just act of retribution and punishment, or the use of a well-intentioned, but ultimately flawed, judicial tool.

In my view, no matter which side of the capital punishment debate you fall on, last week’s execution of Troy Davis should have helped to make one thing clear: theoretical justifications aside, there is something abjectly wrong with the way capital punishment is applied in the United States.  Regardless of whether Davis’ sentence was justly deserved or not, the implementation of the death penalty his case exposed some of the major flaws of the capital punishment system.  In particular, Davis’ execution is emblematic of the following injustices:

1. Racial and socioeconomic prejudice is evident within the application of capital punishment

Perhaps the most-commonly cited complaint against the American justice system is that it disproportionately targets minorities and the poor.  When it comes to capital punishment, this perception of racial bias is supported by two simple statistics: 1) Despite making up only 13.6% of the nation’s population, African-Americans account for 41% of death row inmates and 2) since 1976, a total of 17 death row executions have involved a white convict and a black victim, while 255 have involved a black convict and a white victim.  Economically, a similar prejudice toward the poor is evidenced by the fact that approximately 90 percent of those on death row could not afford to hire an attorney when they were tried.  Based on these statistics, not only are the odds of being found guilty of capital murder  significantly greater for African-Americans and the poor, but so to are the odds of actually being put to death once on death row.

The dichotomy between the number of black inmates put to death and the number of white inmates whose sentences are reduced presented itself very clearly just two days after Davis was put to death.  It was then that the Georgia Board of Pardons commuted the sentence of white inmate David Crowe to life imprisonment.  The contrast between Crowe and Davis, in terms of their crimes, has caused many to question why Crowe’s life was sparred when Davis’ was not.  On one hand, Crowe admitted to deliberately planning out the robbery of a convenience store that ended with him brutally beating the store manager with a crow bar and paint can before shooting him three times.  Davis, by contrast, maintained that he was not responsible for the spur-of-the-moment shooting of the police officer for which he was ultimately put to death.  Crowe did not have to undergo any extraordinary amount of legal maneuvering to secure a stay on his execution.  He simply requested that his sentence be commuted and noted that he was very remorseful for his crimes and that he had been a model inmate while on death row.  Davis, on the other hand, mounted a formidable defense, drummed up considerable public support, enlisted numerous public and religious figures to advocate on his behalf, and produced sworn affidavits in which 7 of the 9 “eyewitnesses” from his original trial recanted their testimony…all to no avail.

Obviously, I do not mean to suggest that there exists a blatant, overtly-racist section of the legal system that is hell bent on executing any poor/ black person brought up on capital murder charges.  Nor do I mean to claim that all (or even the majority) of the poor/black men and women executed since 1976 were the innocent victims of a racially biased legal system rather than properly convicted criminals who met their just end.  Rather, the point I wish to stress is that a bias does exist, and that it is this bias that mars the face of our judicial system as a whole.  As Troy Davis’ case exemplifies, capital punishment is not administered proportionally, let alone justly, in America.

2. Capital punishment is not an efficient means of retribution

According to the logic triumphed by the Supreme Court, “the death penalty is said to serve two principal social purposes: retribution and deterrence of capital crimes by prospective offenders.”Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U. S. 153428 U. S. 183 (1976)  However, evidence shows that, despite its best intentions, the current system fails miserably at meeting both of these standards.  In terms of the first claim—that sentencing a man to death serves as just retribution for the life he took—capital punishment’s inefficiency is made evident on both a financial and emotional level.  Financially speaking, any retribution capital punishment may claim to offer is negated by the fact the Constitutional guarantees produce a long, drawn-out judicial process for capital cases.  Given the finality of the death sentence, states grant death row inmates many more avenues of appeal than other inmates.  As a result, the state ends up spending considerably greater amounts of taxpayer money enforcing death sentences then it does enforcing a sentence of life imprisonment.  In California, for example, taxpayers spend more than $90,000 more per year on each death row inmate than they do on inmates serving life sentences.  All told, this discrepancy accounts for an additional $137 million in state spending each year.  And that figure does not even include the $18,000-$20,000 it takes to actually carry out an execution.

More importantly though, capital punishment’s claim to offer retribution to the family of the victim lacks merit from a purely emotional, human standpoint, as it is difficult to believe that a death sentence provides a greater sense of retribution than a sentence of life imprisonment.  To understand this point, consider two mothers, each having lost a child in a ruthless and senseless murder.  In one case, the perpetrator is sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole; in the other, the perpetrator receives the death sentence.  Putting yourself in the shoes of each of these mothers, consider which option would grant you the greatest degree of “retribution” and peace of mind.  On the one hand, your child’s murderer has been caught, tried, and sentenced to live out his/her days behind bars, safely removed from society and out of your life.  Since there is no possibility of parole, there is little to no chance that he/she will ever walk the streets again.  On the other hand, in the case where capital punishment was implemented, your child’s murderer is granted the ability to appeal his/her sentence to numerous courts.  At each stage of the process, trials are convened, the media is alerted, and you and your family are dragged back in to the circumstances of your loss.  Not only that, but political figures and church leaders begin to advocate for the release of the person that was found responsible for taking your child’s life.  In the end, after countless nights spent worrying if justice will ever, in fact, be delivered, it isn’t until later that the whole ordeal culminates in the execution of your child’s killer. Finally, after some 15-20 years, you are granted some reprieve from reliving the tragedy of your loss.  Given these two scenarios, I wonder which one you would wish for.  Which one truly grants the greatest degree of retribution to the victim’s family?  Better yet, do you think the family of slain officer Mark MacPhail has been the most effective means of retribution possible, or did they languish for 20 years through an extensive appeals process and a veritable media circus, unable to find peace and closure for their loved one’s death?  Knowing that some many of the witnesses recanted, can they ever truly find peace or closure?

3.  Capital punishment does not deter violent crime

The final, and decidedly most-important, issue that Davis’ case brings to light can be stated as follows: capital punishment does not deter violent crime.  Despite the best intentions of its advocates, studies on deterrence have shown that the implementation of the death sentence does not actually serve as an effective deterrent for future crime.  In fact, while most statistics show an equal number of violent crimes in states that have the death penalty as those that do not, states with capital punishment have also been shown to have more violent crimes than neighboring states that do not.  One possible explanation for this discrepancy is quite simple–many of the crimes for which men are sent to death row did not occur with any substantial premeditation.  As a result, the fact that they might be executed for their crime could not have been a factor in influencing their action.  This sentiment is reiterated by the Supreme Court when it ruled that “capital punishment can serve as a deterrent only when murder is the result of premeditation and deliberation.” Enmund v. Florida, 458 U.S. 782, 799 (1982)

Regardless of the reasoning used to make sense of the current statistics, nothing can change the numbers or manipulate the results of recent studies.   Without irrefutable proof to its effectiveness, advocating for the death penalty on the grounds that it provides retribution and prevents future violence is simply unreasonable.  Additionally, as the Troy Davis execution has reminded us, the implementation of the death penalty is neither color-blind nor class neutral.  Perhaps now that his case as gained such notoriety more people will realize that, regardless of their theoretical take on capital punishment, the time for a re-examination of the death penalty in America is long overdue.   Continuing to mix ignorance, bias, and ineffectiveness creates an expensive and deadly concoction and perpetuates a process that Americans can no longer justify living with and killing for.  After all, are we not, as a society, above stooping to the level of our basest members?

For more information on this case, follow this link for a full copy of Judge Moore’s order denying Davis’ Petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus.