Do you know this man?
His name is Troy Anthony Davis, and he is scheduled to die Wednesday evening by the method of lethal injection.
Normally this blog has served as a place for C, J, and I to pursue lighthearted interests and to step away from the grind of our normal routines. But more often than we’d like, we all have to pause and consider the heavier aspects of a world that is not always glittery and golden. I’ve wanted to articulate my thoughts about this subject for a while but have been hesitant to do so; yet I think the imminent execution of Troy Davis demonstrates how this issue is most literally one involving life or death. So this serves as your disclaimer: No happy news here today.
If you are unfamiliar with the case of Troy Davis, a bit of research is insightful. Convicted of killing a white police office in 1991, Troy has maintained his innocence throughout 20 years of appeals. At the time of conviction, Davis’s case was based solely upon testimony and completely lacked physical evidence. Since his conviction, many of those testimonies have changed, casting extreme doubt upon the case’s foundation. Several of those who testified against Davis are now confessing that they only testified under police pressure, and seven of the nine jurors in the trial now believe that Troy Davis is an innocent man.
Last week CNN released an interview with a Pastor Johnson of Savannah, who says he drove Troy Davis from Atlanta to Savannah to turn himself into the police after the search warrant on Davis had been publicized. Johnson claims that though he spent several hours with Davis during the time prior to his submission to the police, no one at the DA’s office found him even worth interviewing. Evidence like this that has come to light over the last twenty years paints a picture of a legal operation bent upon convicting Troy Davis whether he was the guilty man or not.
Of course Troy Davis’s situation is worthy of note because the evidence against him is so, so unconvincing at this point. If the death penalty is intended to be an arbiter of justice, then one must question whether any person who (in the court of public opinion) is found to be probably-not-guilty ought to spend another moment on death row. At the very least Davis deserves another trial, because the odds are high that he has spent twenty years of his life in jail for a crime he never committed—which, in turn, means that someone else who IS guilty walks free. This is hardly justice, but rather a superficial solution to the very real problem of a very real murder.
But Davis’s situation is not completely exceptional, though I wish it were. Since 1973, at least 135 convicted murderers have been taken off death row due to overturned convictions. Others have been executed whose guilt has been called into question far too late (see this article about Cameron Willingham in the New Yorker). Unlike other forms of punishment, execution is one that cannot be stopped midway or rectified later. What’s done is done when it comes to putting someone to death: a dead person will always be dead.
Beyond the standard arguments regarding the surface-level “just-ness” of the death penalty, there are less obvious concerns as well. First, it is rarely acknowledged that the system that determines who goes onto death row lacks consistency. There are no standardized systems for determining whose crimes are “most flagrant” or “most vicious,” which is upsetting. I doubt anyone would argue that justice ought to be arbitrary. Second, many states have a history of executing people whose economic backgrounds prevent them from affording the best legal defenses. Some studies argue that around 95% of inmates on death row in certain states have relied on public defenders out of economic necessity.
Third, the death penalty demonstrates racist trends. In my state of Arkansas, there are currently 23 black, 16 white, and 1 hispanic male/s on death row. This alone does not demonstrate a racist system, but a closer look at the cases themselves does. David Baldus, a former professor of law at the University of Iowa, has frequently been cited as a source for his statistical work on death row cases because his findings suggest that while the race of the perpetrator may alone say very little, the race of the victim says very much. In fact, his statistical research demonstrated that a black person convicted of killing a white person is four times more likely to receive the death penalty than a white person who kills a white person. Building upon Baldus’s work, watchdog groups have pointed out that 253 black persons have been executed for killing whites, while only 16 white persons have been executed for killing black persons since 1973. This makes very little sense, considering there are roughly as many white persons as black persons currently sitting on death row across the United States. The numbers are striking.
Another set of numbers to take into consideration is the cost of the death penalty: cost picked up by the taxpayers. It is virtually impossible to argue that the legal fees associated with the death penalty are not exorbitant. Recent research in California—a state with its own present financial troubles—suggests that California’s taxpayers have paid $4 billion in death-row-related legal fees since 1978. Currently, that cost is $184 million per year in a state with hardly enough money to pay the bills. With 700+ inmates on death row, California could significantly save millions of dollars by simply placing a moratorium on the extremely costly system. California is just one state to prove that it is much more expensive to execute a person than to keep that person in jail for life.
While no one has been able to prove that the death penalty actually deters crime, most of the people in my life who support the death penalty do so because they believe that the Old Testament law upheld it. I cannot argue with this because there is no doubt that the old law relied upon it. In fact, children who disrespected their parents, kidnappers, those who trespassed the Sabbath, psychic mediums, adulterers, and others were also subject to the death penalty under the old law. The books of Exodus and Leviticus are filled with the phrase “shall be put to death.”
However, the people who most frequently refer to the old law are Christians, whose Christ came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17). What sets Christ’s spirit apart from the old law’s spirit is that grace and mercy rule, rather than retribution in equal measure trying to settle the scales. Though the old law attempted to maintain justice, Christ’s presence taught us that humankind is too far gone to “settle up” with God; that we can never, ever deserve the grace he offers to all.
When Christ told us to love our enemies and pray for those who treat us badly, it is a radical command. And it doesn’t end there: we were commanded to do so because “He himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men” (Luke 6:35). It’s no longer a law about what people deserve or don’t deserve, but rather about acknowledging the universal need for grace that trickles down from on high. I submit that I cannot understand how people place their faith in such an overwhelming love, and at the same time insist that Christ Himself would have endorsed ending a person’s life, no matter how guilty that person is found to be according to God or man.
Perhaps the one story that seems most applicable here—and the one story I have yet to have heard in relation to the Christian stance on the death penalty—is the story of the adulterous woman in John 8. The Pharisees bring a guilty woman to Christ in order to see how he will enact justice upon her. Though she is subject to death by the law, Christ knows that the law has become weak. He says to the Pharisees, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” For the Pharisees, the law is no longer even about justice, but about demonstrating outward superiority. But Christ’s point is that sin is universal, as is the need for grace; and that the woman’s outward sign of sin was no worse than the sinful hearts of the Pharisees before him. Christ reveals that the law, fulfilled, is one that recognizes the spirit of mankind, both visible and invisible. By refusing to condemn the woman, he demonstrates a new spirit that operates by grace and mercy toward every guilty creature.
Perhaps you disagree with my arguments, and that is okay with me. I appreciate nothing more than thoughtful debates regarding subjects of importance. The execution issue is doubly controversial due to its religious and political aspects, so feel free to leave me a comment, question, or complaint below. No debate will ever atone Mark MacPhail—the police officer who can never be brought back, whose death was senseless, and whose murder will never be paid for even after Troy Davis is executed on Wednesday night. No amount of mortal blood can offset such crimes, but perhaps the blood of God’s son already has.
Do some research for yourself. Check out your state’s records on the death penalty, and pray for spiritual guidance regarding how to make sense of justice and grace in light of pain. Opposing the death penalty ought not diminish the lives of the murdered, or those who suffer because of lives that are lost. Pray for peace to reign in the hearts of MacPhail’s family, as well as Troy Davis’s family. Pray for those who have lost loved ones to death of all sorts, and pray for that day when
He’ll establish justice in the rabble of nations
and settle disputes in faraway places.
They’ll trade in their swords for shovels,
their spears for rakes and hoes.
Nations will quit fighting each other,
quit learning how to kill one another.
Each man will sit under his own shade tree,
each woman in safety will tend her own garden.
God-of-the-Angel-Armies says so,
and he means what he says. (Micah 4)
PS – Consider contacting Georgia DA Larry Chisolm by clicking here and asking that he intervene on Troy’s behalf. Or, check out some other ways to help Troy avoid execution (including calling the Georgia Board of Pardon and Paroles) by clicking here.