Troy Davis’ case brings capital punishment’s flaws to light

by Carly Loman / Beacon Staff • September 29, 2011

, Beacon Staff/strong

As a kid, I liked to pretend I was president. I belonged to an imaginary political party called Achabach and our primary concern was ensuring that the death penalty was abolished.

Besides proving that kids from D.C. play some weird make-believe games, the fact that my eight-year-old self thought that the single biggest injustice in our country was the death penalty speaks volumes about the ethically reprehensible practice of killing our criminals.

While I have held steadfast to my innocent childhood belief that all life — even that of a felon — is sacred, I understand why some people don’t.

When you grow up, you learn the true reasons why people are sentenced to death. You learn about brutal murders executed in cold blood and gruesome rapes committed without regret. You learn that some people are heartless, and it becomes more and more difficult to continue being compassionate. For many, it becomes impossible.

So let’s not talk about compassion — let’s talk facts. Either premise has the same result: The death penalty is wrong.

The case of Troy Anthony Davis, the Georgia man executed last week for allegedly killing off-duty police officer Mark MacPhail in 1989, is a microcosm for a number of issues pertaining to the death penalty. Capital punishment as an institution is racist, expensive, and — by virtue of the permanence of the punishment — unjust.

As a black man accused of killing a white man, the odds were stacked against Davis since the beginning of his trial. Individuals are much more likely to end up on death row if they are convicted of killing a white person. According to Amnesty International, the race of the murder victim is the single strongest predictor of whether or not the accused will be sentenced to death.

The U.S. General Accounting Office  found that between 1976 and 1990, 77 percent of death row inmates were convicted of killing white people. That’s compared to 15 percent of whom were convicted of killing black people. This is an outrageous disparity when you consider that half of all homicides are committed against black people. Racism has perverted American juries for as long as racism has existed in America, but this gross prejudice cannot be accepted when it comes to life or death.

Neither can the inescapable burden of uncertainty. Since 1973, over 130 individuals have been released from death row due to evidence confirming their innocence. That means that more than 130 sons or daughters have sat incarcerated as their loved ones waited, sometimes for decades, until their innocence was proven.

Worse is imagining how many death row inmates’ innocence was never proven — people like Troy Davis. Doubt concerning Davis’ guilt has caused high profile leaders like former President Jimmy Carter to speak out against his execution. But despite compelling evidence, Davis took his last breath strapped to a gurney after being given a lethal injection.

Beyond a reasonable doubt, the state of Georgia did not save any money by executing Troy Davis instead of having him serve a life sentence.

A common misconception is that the death penalty is a cheap alternative to life in prison. But according to Amnesty International, because death penalty cases have separate trials for conviction and sentencing, investigative costs are generally higher. Additionally, death penalty trials that result in a non-death sentence require taxpayers to pay for both the extra costs of the initial capital trial and any cost of then incarcerating or retrying the offender later.

Death penalty cases are exorbitantly expensive. A Dec. 2003 survey by the Kansas Legislative Post Audit discovered that an execution costs an average of $1.26 million, whereas life imprisonment costs $740,000. Requiring the state to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars more for the benefit of killing a criminal is an unnecessary and unwise use of tax dollars.

Some argue that the death penalty, for all its flaws, must be preserved for its power to deter violent crimes. But the perception that capital punishment is an effective crime prevention measure is baseless. According to FBI data, states without capital punishment have murder rates equal to or lower than those states that enforce it.

Troy Davis’ death has brought capital punishment to the national spotlight. He is, however, destined to be but another blip in capital punishment’s sordid history. After a few weeks, his case will fade from our collective memory just like the Lawyer Johnson, Peter Limone, and Laurence Adams cases have. These three men served 11, 33, and 30 years respectively on death row in Massachusetts before being exonerated, but their names and their stories have been largely forgotten.

The death penalty cannot be seen as just an ethical argument brought up every few months with a high-profile case, because whether you believe capital punishment is right or wrong, there’s no arguing that the system isn’t without flaws. And a flawed system should not determine a man’s life or death.

emCarly Loman is a sophomore political communication and writing, literature, and publishing double major and the assistant opinion editor of the Beacon. She can be reached at carly_loman@emerson.edu/em