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Troy Davis and the Return of Opposition to the Death Penalty

You’d think a religion founded to worship a guy who had been unjustly executed by the state might generate some serious opposition to the death penalty, right?  There was a time, in early Christianity when Christians would not even watch an execution, even if the person was properly tried and convicted, because they felt that watching was participating in the act, but that was a long time ago.  Yet Wednesday night, for the first time since perhaps the execution of born-again Texan Karla Faye Tucker back in 1998, there was a whole lot of anxiety both within and without the church over the state of Georgia’s killing of Troy Davis, an African-American convicted of murdering an off-duty police officer in Savannah in 1989.

From a biblical perspective, Christian opposition to the death penalty should be a slam dunk.  Jesus’ nullification of the Lex Talionis in the Sermon on the Mount made it clear that revenge was not acceptable among his followers, who were instead called to work for the reconciliation of their enemies.  This was undoubtedly the motivation behind early Christian theologian Minucius Felix (writing c. 238-248 CE) who asserted  that Christians can’t even watch the state do its worst: “It is not right for us either to see or hear of a man being slain; and so careful are we (to abstain) from human blood, that we do not even touch the blood of eatable animals in (our) food.” (Octavius 30.6).  Earlier, the apologist Athenagoras had put the matter even more pointedly:  “For when they know that we cannot endure even to see a man put to death, though justly; who of them can accuse us of murder or cannibalism? Who does not reckon among the things of greatest interest the contests of gladiators and wild beasts, especially those which are given by you? But we, deeming that to see a man put to death is much the same as killing him, have abjured such spectacles.” (A Plea for the Christians, 35).  This was the universal position of the church on the matter in the early centuries, but all of that was dropped when Christians were brought into the governing coalition in the fourth century.  From then on, Christian acceptance of the death penalty became the norm. In the last few decades, however, most of the historically European Christian countries have once again become opposed to the death penalty, albeit on reasons grounded in both human rights and pragmatic concerns rather than doctrinal warrants.  But in the US, though it looked until the 70s like we would follow this Eurotrend, the general public is now firmly once again in support, despite all of the widespread religious to return to an ostensibly traditional Christianity.

Which makes what happened this week all the more important, because so many Americans quite obviously had their perceptions of the American justice system and the efficacy of capital punishment in particular questioned in powerful ways.  The case against Troy Davis was riddled with problems.  Seven of the trial’s witnesses walked back their testimony, claiming police coercion and tampering  One of the witnesses was a jailhouse snitch whom some witnesses say was the actual shooter.  No gun was ever found, nor were there any fingerprints or DNA evidence.  The police showed the accused’s photograph to the witnesses before the lineup, and then in the lineup set the accused apart so that he would stand out.  The police did three re-enactments of the crime at the scene with all of the witnesses present so that they could get their stories straight.  Any of these should have been enough to have the matter retried.  Taken together, they sound like a replay of what “justice” looked like back in the days of Jim Crow.

It is because so much of the case and its investigation were hanging in the air that such staunch death penalty supporters as former FBI Director William Sessions and former Congressman and US Attorney Bob Barr went on the record calling for a new trial.  This was in addition to pleas from traditional opponents to capital punishment such as Jimmy Carter and the Pope.  The State of Georgia killed him anyway, even though nearly a quarter of a million people signed a petition urging otherwise.

And that’s what has made so many people queasy about the death penalty, and rightfully so.  Davis’ execution highlights some of the grave problems that often go unnoticed by the general public, such as the fact that blacks are disproportionately sentenced to death and executed.  To many who were watching Wednesday night, it occurred to us that if Davis had been white, somebody would have done something to pause the process until the questions were answered.

The problem is that, with this many questions unresolved, whether one supports the death penalty or not, the whole justice system loses credibility with the people, which is dangerous in a democracy. It isn’t force or threats that keep us together, and keep most people’s actions within the law, but trust and mutual respect. If those are eroded, and people lose confidence that justice is attainable, them the commonweal is threatened. Far better would it have been for GA to have retried Davis ten years ago and laid ruses matters to rest one way or the other, than to have killed him when so many of even its own citizens were in doubt.

Conversion on this issue is possible.  The most compelling recent transformation took place in the life of my Presbyterian colleague, Carroll Pickett, who was the Death Row chaplain for the State of Texas for 16 years, being the last human contact with 95 condemned men, placing his hand on their leg as they were lethally injected.  As with the Davis case. it was Pickett’s observation of what appeared to him to be the execution of a clearly innocent man that turned him into one of the most vigorous opponents of capital punishment in the country today.  We can only pray that a similar transformation occurred in the hearts of Americans as they watched the antiseptic horror than unfolded on cable news Wednesday night.

4 thoughts on “Troy Davis and the Return of Opposition to the Death Penalty

  1. Thanks for this excellent post. Like you, I worry that racism made a difference, perhaps the difference, but I also wonder if there weren’t other factors. I’m not sure why the Supreme Court, for example, failed to call a halt to the execution. I need to look their statement because I’m still stunned that they didn’t — and that all along the line government officials failed. What reason did they give? Thanks again!

  2. Dave, the SCOTUS didn’t give any reason, This was their statement.

    It was originally reported on CNN and elsewhere that the order was given without dissent, but this was erroneous. Just because there were no dissenters listed in the order does not mean that the matter was not bitterly contested behind closed doors.

    They had, however, been so concerned that this case had problems that for the first time in decades had sent a case like this back to a lower court for review. The problem is that they did so with the stipulation that he be granted a new trial if the judge felt that Davis would be found innocent, rather than the normal standard that he was presumed innocent unless proven to be guilty. The judge did not feel that Davis could so simply be found innocent and so denied the request for a new trial. The SCOTUS does not typically involve itself in state cases like this, so I don’t think one should presume that they were in agreement with the GA decision. They do not want to be arbitrating every hard case that comes down the pike over issues of sloppiness or wrongdoing. That would simply encourage more sloppiness and passing the buck on the local level to the higher court, which cannot possibly be expected to clean up every judicial mess. My guess is that they wrestled with this but felt that if they decided the matter they would be inundated with a flood of similar cases which every state would be expecting them to sort through and they just weren’t going to do that. If Georgia screwed this up then Georgia judges, politicians and prison officials could take the heat for it, which in the end is the only way to keep it from happening again and again in the future. That would be a smart strategy for the long haul and is consistent with what we know about how the court “thinks” from the insider accounts by Rosen, Toobin and Woodward from recent years. But it sure sucked for Davis.

  3. Thanks Tim. But doesn’t the SCOTUS bear the image of Pilate? If you are right, they may have felt the desire to intervene but held back in the name of procedural integrity and the long-term health of the system. My suspicion is that they were far from alone in this kind of thinking, that many have hidden from responsibility behind claims of respect for the law, the system, the Constitution.

    1. I think you are right on both points. They did act like Pilate and the judicial system is filled with people who did just the same, no doubt rationalizing that if they made a fuss and gave Davis some slack that they would lose their job, and wouldn’t it be better to try and hang on and do some good than to get canned and then replaced by someone with fewer moral scruples?

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