On September 21, 2011, Troy Davis was put to death by the state of Georgia by lethal injection. He was accused of the shooting death of Officer Mark MacPhail in 1989. Throughout his years on death row and during the execution procedure, Troy Davis maintained his innocence. In fact, this case was wrought with doubt about his guilt: seven of the nine witnesses in the case recanted or changed their testimony about his guilt, and there was no physical evidence found at the crime scene linking him to the death of Officer MacPhail.
On the same day, Lawrence Russell Brewer, a white supremacist gang member who was one of three men who dragged James Byrd Jr. to his death in 1998, was executed in Huntsville, Texas. Byrd’s death received national attention due to not only the racist roots of the crime, but its brutality: he was tied to the truck bumper with a logging chain, and dragged three miles until his body was shredded. Brewer’s execution received scant media attention, no doubt because of the utter brutality and racism involved in his crime. What has become news is his last meal request, which included an array of foods from chicken fried steak to a triple meat bacon cheeseburger. This request led Texas authorities to end the last meal request for prisoners on death row. From now on, they receive what the kitchen offers and nothing more.
While the death of Officer MacPhail is undoubtedly an unjust travesty, and while it is difficult to sympathize with the white supremacists in the Byrd case who were brutally violent, we are left with the question of what good comes from capital punishment? Who does it serve? Does it make society safer?
As Death Penalty Focuspoints out, capital punishment has been eradicated in the vast majority of countries in Western Europe, North America, and South America. Studies have confirmed that the death penalty does not deter people from committing crime, and that one of the most important factors that determines whether someone receives the death penalty is the quality of their defense. Racial disparities exist, with those who murder white people being more likely to receive the death penalty than those who murder blacks (the case of James Byrd, Jr. notwithstanding). Moreover, the possibility of executing an innocent person is always present. Just last week, two North Carolina men were exonerated for a murder they did not commit ten years ago. Kenneth Kagonyera and Robert Wilcoxson, two innocent men, were pressured to plead guilty to second-degree murder so that they would not face the death penalty or life in prison. Clearly, our criminal justice system is nowhere near flawless.
Despite the fact that federal and state governments in the U.S. have convicted and executed individuals who were later found to be innocent, we continue to practice the death penalty. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, as of January 2010, out of the total death row population of 3,261, there were 61 women awaiting execution. With the exception of women like Aileen Wuornos and Karla Faye Tucker who make media headlines for deviating from gender roles, many of these women are invisible to the larger society. The website “Women of Death Row” is one of the few sites that are devoted exclusively to women facing capital punishment; it features their artwork and stories so we can contextualize their lives in more than their crimes.
While we do not condone murder on an individual level, we also do not condone murder when it is committed by the state. Capital punishment does not bring victims back to life, it does not curtail crime, and it costs society more than life imprisonment. Troy Davis’ wrongful death should be a wakeup call to all of us. The death penalty needs to be abolished immediately. May Troy Davis rest in peace, and may the rest of us not rest until the bloodshed has ended.