Friday, September 23, 2011

Sure Enough to Kill Troy Davis

So, Troy Davis is dead.
Strapped to a gurney in Georgia's death chamber, Troy Davis lifted his head and declared one last time that he did not kill police officer Mark MacPhail. Just a few feet away behind a glass window, MacPhail's son and brother watched in silence.
And, despite his claim that he is innocent of a crime for which there is no physical evidence (according to a report I heard on the radio this morning), it seems the witnesses were enough to make it stick. The victim's mother says:
[Davis has] been telling himself [he's innocent] for 22 years. You know how it is, he can talk himself into anything (same source as above).
As anyone who reads my stuff with any regularity knows, I'm not a current events guy, except when current events raise larger philosophical questions about life. I can't stay away from this one.

I once had a conversation about life and death with an exceedingly intelligent friend of mine. Our discussion over issues of the value of life ended when I said: "Let's face one thing: killing is fundamentally wrong." He said, "I don't necessarily think so." How do you go on arguing? People will sometimes have irreconcilable differences in opinion. So I won't go that direction here.

But, once, my father told me a story about a young man in his neighborhood, in South Philadelphia in the 1950's. It seems the guy accidentally killed another young man by playing "Russian Roulette" with a .38 revolver. He'd spin the chamber (one bullet in the gun out of the six spots), point it at the heads of people around him and pull the trigger. The gun went off and he blew his friend's mind all over the room.

My father attended the trial and the judge told the accidental killer that he was giving him the most stringent penalty possible. The young man begged and pleaded and said he was sorry -- that it had been an accident. The judge said. "I would feel more sorry for you if you had done it on purpose. But to end a life with a stupid, irresponsible mistake -- with a risk you put on someone else's life . . . that's worse than murder."

I get that point and I must say, I think I agree. To wield lethal power and then to kill by mistake? That's horrible.

Nevertheless, Davis is dead and he maintained that he was innocent. Could he have been lying? Of course. Could he have been deluded? Yes. Is it likely, with all the eyewitnesses saying so, that he did kill MacPhail? Yes. Is it possible he did not? -- that the witnesses are wrong? -- lying? -- deluded? -- looking for a book deal after the execution? Yes.

If there is a .0000000023% chance the jury is wrong, is it worth the risk of absolute finality?

The problem with the death penalty is its finality. If there in an infinitesimal chance that the jury's verdict is wrong, in a murder trial, is it worth the risk of killing the accused? If the defendant is imprisoned for life, and new evidence comes to light, he can be let go. But after the needle pumps or the chair buzzes, there's no revision.

I've often said that one of the biggest problems in this world is people's inability to consider that they just might be wrong in their opinions and arguments -- that they are so hell-bent on being right, they will risk anything to seem sure. I've watched people, for instance, successfully ruin a man's career because they disagreed with his philosophies and accused him of things that I, personally, don't believe were true. What if they were wrong? Do they ever think about that? Well -- too late. The man will never work in his former profession again.

When this thinking gets extended to a life, we have problems. This isn't about whether a murderer deserves to die. It's a question of the unbelievable arrogance of being so sure as to be willing to kill.

Well, all I can say is that I hope every person ever killed for a crime at any time in the whole history of the world was really guilty of the act of which he was accused.

What do you mean that's ridiculous?

Oh, right, not all societies had jury systems -- crooked kings and warlords and all that. Good point. Let me revise:

Well, all I can say is that I hope every person ever killed for a crime at any time in the American justice system was really guilty of the act of which he was accused.


No matter how you look at it, though, the question, "What if I'm wrong?" just isn't asked enough.


  1. Excellent summary; you pretty accurately described what I was trying hard to work out in my head.