Life and Death

September 21, 2011

The death penalty has been in the news a lot lately, with some troubling cases and attitudes. Barring some unexpected last-minute change, Georgia is set to execute Troy Davis tonight. Davis, who may or may not be guilty, provides a case that should cause concern. After three prior stays of execution, it now appears Davis will be executed for a 1989 killing of a police officer. Seven of the nine eyewitnesses who implicated Davis have since since recanted, another individual (one of the witnesses) has been accused by several people, and the physical evidence tying Davis to the crime is weak. Many individuals have called for clemency for him, including Pope Benedict XVI, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Noel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former Republican Representative Bob Barr, and former FBI Director and judge William Sessions (and some people argue that the repeated near-executions of Davis is a form of torture). Many religious leaders have also joined the fight to stop the execution. Reverend Raphael Warnock, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, said:

This is a civil rights violation, a human rights violation in the worst way.
Megachurch pastor T. D. Jakes called the pending execution "a tragedy." A preacher was arrested while protesting outside the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles offices, and another preacher offered to be executed in place of Davis. Although Davis might be guilty, his case raises serious questions about the level of standards needed to execute someone. Even supporters of the death penalty should be troubled by the problems with the case and the possibility that an innocent person could be executed. Over 100 convicted death row inmates have been freed in the U.S. over the last forty years after evidence exonerated them of the crimes. Several spent more than a decade--and some more than two decades--in prison for the crime they did not commit. These mistakes alone should make everyone hesitant to support the death penalty in its current form.

Another case in the news right now involves a man on death row in Texas. Last week, Duane Buck had eaten his last meal and was preparing to be executed when a stay of execution was handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court. Buck's case demonstrates another flaw in our current death penalty system: minorities are more likely to get the death penalty than whites. Even among rightfully-convicted individuals, we have a system that does not treat individuals equally. The issue in Buck's case is not if he is innocent of killing two people in 1995, but that his race was used by a prosecution witness as a reason why he should receive a harsher punishment (similar comments by the same prosecution expert led to five other cases be reheard at the sentencing level). Apparently "Lady Justice" is not colorblind. Even supporters of the death penalty should not support such an imbalanced system.

Adding to these two troubling cases is the response of the crowd at a recent Republican presidential primary debate. When NBC's Brian Williams started asking presidential hopeful Rick Perry about the fact that Perry had been governor of Texas while the state executed 234 individuals, the Republican crowd interrupted Williams with applause and cheering. Such a response--especially when coupled with a different Republican debate hosted by the Tea Party Express and CNN when some in the crowd yelled "yeah" when presidential hopeful Ron Paul was asked if a man without insurance should be left to die--suggests a callous attitude among some who claim to be "pro-life." Hopefully we can move to a more respectful discussion of life-and-death issues where all are viewed and treated as human beings. And hopefully we can move beyond a culture that too often celebrates death.

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