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Globally, 31 countries have abolished capital punishment, among them a number of European democracies. Nations still imposing lethal punishment are Iran, China, North Korea, Yemen and the United States (CNN.com, March 28).
This is the company we Americans keep. Doesn’t that make you proud?
Supreme Court Justice William Brennan used to tell me: “We will not be a civilized country until we end capital punishment.” And in this nation, three states, since 2007 – New Mexico, New Jersey and Illinois – appear to agree with Justice Brennan by abolishing the death penalty. Explains Amnesty International:
“The three state governors all pointed to the risk of irrevocable error as a reason to support abolition.” The Nobel Peace Prize-winning Amnesty International has more than 3 million supporters in more than 150 countries, a good many recently demonstrating and petitioning to save the life of Troy Davis.
For years, I have thoroughly researched and reported on this, the longest official execution in our history. I entirely agree with this thundering Sept. 21 editorial in the New York Times (“A Grievous Wrong”):
“This case has attracted worldwide attention, but it is, in essence, no different from other capital cases (in this nation). Across the country, the legal process for the death penalty has shown itself to be discriminatory (on racial grounds), unjust and incapable of being fixed.”
Anthony Romero, head of the American Civil Liberties Union, starkly shows what we as a self-governing nation have to answer for in this official murder (I avoid euphemisms) of Troy Davis. He told me:
“His conviction was based solely on the testimony of witnesses, and there was no other evidence against him. And, since the trial, seven of those witnesses (saying they were coerced by police interrogators) have recanted, changing the story they told in court.”
Having reported on American capital punishment for many years, including my own investigations of cases, I can attest to this report in the Sept. 21 Times editorial: “Studies of the hundreds of felony cases overturned because of DNA evidence have found that misidentifications accounted for between 75 percent and 85 percent of the wrongful convictions. The Davis case offers egregious examples of this kind of error.”
Among those who were working to save Troy’s life were former FBI Director William Sessions, Pope Benedict XVI and Stephen Dear, executive director of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, an interfaith (U.S.) advocacy group. Says Mr. Dear:
“This has been a teachable moment for America’s religious leadership: that the death penalty is so awash with bias and errors that there’s no morally acceptable alternative but repealing it” (“Execution Offers Little Closure in Debate,” New York Times, Sept. 23).
A teachable moment not only for religious leaders but also for any American who has actually read – and is seriously committed to – the Constitution. Declares the Fifth Amendment:
“Nor shall any person … be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”
Troy Davis fought for fundamental due process almost literally until his last breath. He has shown every American who will not avert his or her eyes the horrifying truth nakedly described by Denny LeBoeuf, director of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project:
“The execution of an innocent man crystallizes in the most sickening way the vast systemic injustices that plague our death penalty system” (“Execution Offers Little Closure in Debate,” New York Times, Sept. 23).
One of my longtime heroes, lawyer Stephen Bright, president of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, is involved in many death penalty cases, including that of Troy Davis. He keeps asking:
“Why would any conscientious judge, why would any bar association, why would any system that is supposed to disperse justice ever allow these kinds of things to happen?” (My book, “Living the Bill of Rights: How to Be an Authentic American,” University of California Press, 1999.)
During more than 20 years and three execution stays while Troy Davis was on death row, not a single court called for an end to his death sentence. The Supreme Court, at the last minute, dismissed his life in a single sentence. And President Barack Obama ignored the NAACP’s pleas for a reprieve.
So there was Davis, strapped to a gurney, minutes from death, speaking directly to two of the witnesses, the brother and son of the police officer he was convicted of shooting to death:
“I am innocent. … All I can ask is that you look deeper into this case so that you really can finally see the truth.”
Before, he reminded us that, “this struggle is for all the Troy Davises who came before me and all the ones who will come after me” (dailykos.com, Sept. 20).
Up until he was gone, among the calls for at least clemency from around the world were pleas from “a group of former death row wardens, who wrote to Georgia authorities calling on them to halt the death sentence due to doubts about Davis’ guilt. Among the group was the former warden in charge of the Georgia death chamber.” No wonder: Officials banned cameras from the execution grounds. (“Troy Davis Execution Approaches As Calls For Clemency Continue,” huffingtonpost.com, Sept. 21)
How long – and to what end – will Troy Davis’ truth be remembered and acted upon? Or will this teaching moment also soon be buried?
Meanwhile, we continue to be in deathly consortium with China, North Korea, Iran and Yemen as the most active executioners of our citizens in the world.
How ashamed are you?