On Sept. 21, 2011, the American state of Georgia executed Troy Davis. Like many organizations that fought for a stay of his execution, the International Association of Lawyers was deeply disappointed with this final turn of events.
In its press release the association expressed its support for a commutation of the sentence to the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles and the district prosecutor, Larry Chisolm. The association raised the same issues cited by many others: the fragile nature of the evidence that Troy Davis actually shot police officer Mark MacPhail, the disappointing inability of the American legal system to re-examine the evidence, and the perpetuation of errors that “tarnish the justice system on the whole.” The press release states, “Apart from the fact that it constitutes a form of legalized violence that trivialises and even legitimizes violent behaviour among individuals, it also promotes an atmosphere of vengeance and brutality that is incompatible with the idea of justice and, above all, human rights.”
A huge number of people were mobilized to stop this execution. This appeared to many to be a case of supreme injustice considering the evidentiary problems with the case: several recantations by eyewitnesses, admissions of guilt by the alternative suspect, Davis’ clear and continuous assertions of innocence, and no incriminating physical evidence or a murder weapon.
The execution was scheduled for 7 p.m. For reasons that have not been explained, the Supreme Court delayed the execution. According to press reports, the mood of the crowd outside the prison brightened, only to be dashed about four hours later. Davis’ execution was a very emotional and deeply saddening event. In a recent Huffington Post article, David Protess, president of the Chicago Innocence Project, wrote that the result should have been expected. “Troy Davis never had a chance,” he wrote. “From the day he was arrested, Troy Davis had three strikes against him.”
Davis was black, and MacPhail was white. According to the Death Penalty Information Center’s web site, where there is interracial murder, the likelihood of execution is much higher if the accused is black and the victim is white. Protess wrote, “In the past three decades, 255 blacks have been executed for killing whites, while only 17 whites have been put to death for killing blacks.” Citing the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, he continued, “During the same period, almost 80 per cent of executions involved inmates convicted of murdering whites, even though half the murder victims in society were black.
“MacPhail was a police officer. Law enforcement, charged with protecting all citizens equally, protects some more equally than others. The murder of a police officer compels prosecutors to pull out all the stops to get a conviction and death sentence. State law makes the murder of an officer a capital offense. If MacPhail had been the mayor of Savannah, his murderer would not have been eligible for the death penalty.”
He continues: “The crime happened in the South. Three Southern states (Texas, Virginia, and Florida) account for the majority of all executions since 1976, according to a recent report by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Georgia ranks seventh in the country in total executions, and its death row is one of the nation’s largest.”
The recorded moments of Davis’ final hours are so human it is difficult not to be moved. Associated Press reporter Greg Bluestein was one of five reporters to witness the execution. He wrote: “Death watch began at 7 a.m. on Sept. 20, a day he spent meeting with visitors, watching TV, and talking to his attorneys. A nurse brought him a fish oil pill and other unspecified medications around 9:20 p.m. and he was asleep within half an hour.
“He awoke the next morning and refused his breakfast tray. He stayed in bed until about 7:50 a.m. when he was strip-searched and escorted to the shower. The prison warden met with him a few minutes after he finished shaving, and the first of his 28 visitors came to see him at that morning.
“He turned down his lunch at noon and, after the last visitor left about six hours later, refused to eat an early dinner, requesting only the grape drink on the tray. Guards spotted him praying around 6:45, and 15 minutes later, when his execution was scheduled to begin, he was napping. He awoke an hour later, called his attorney for an update and asked the guards to bring in some food. He spent the next few hours on and off the phone with his lawyer awaiting news on his fate,” continues Bluestein.
“He probably heard that the Supreme Court denied his request for a last-minute stay shortly before guards came into the room at 10:28. A few minutes later, he was strapped to the gurney and execution witnesses started filing in. It was over at 11:08, when authorities pronounced him dead and cleared the death chamber.”
In Canada the last hangings took place in 1962. The death penalty was officially removed from the Criminal Code in 1976 and replaced with a mandatory life sentence without possibility of parole for 25 years for first-degree murder. Finally for military personnel, the death penalty was removed from the National Defence Act in relation to the most serious military offences, including treason and mutiny, in 1998.
While the current government says it has no intention to re-open the death penalty debate, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said he believes in the use of the death penalty in some cases. The current Conservative government has modified Canadian policy and no longer requests stays of execution for Canadians who find themselves on death row in the United States.
Further, the government has decided, even in these very uncertain economic times, to devote a significant amount of its budget to expanding prison facilities. Through the new omnibus bill C-10, the “safe streets and communities act,” it is signalling it wants to put more Canadians in jail for crimes that did not necessarily receive jail time in the past.
Are Canadians being co-opted to accept a black-and-white law-and-order agenda as we hang on to the fiscal conservatism of the current government as a life vest against the current tide of economic uncertainty? Will we slowly start thinking differently, and at some point accept that it is OK to kill in the name of justice, even when we know that our justice system is a flawed human invention? Or, will our knowledge of the cases like David Milgaard and Steven Truscott safeguard us from this mistake?