Troy Davis was put to death last night by lethal injection.
Not before a heroic effort by many who oppose the death penalty outright, and those who had significant reason to believe there was too much legal doubt present in order to proceed in killing this fellow citizen. That effort should be commended. But Troy Davis is still dead.
There is the scientific evidence that nearly half of lethal injection deaths are done without sufficient anesthetic. There is the huge racial bias in death penalty convictions and the bias and confusion in jury selection. There’s the fact that the death penalty is not a deterrent to future crime. And there’s the pesky thing about lack of evidence in Troy Davis’ case. But ignore all that for now.
How do we, as a society, feel it is psychologically justifiable to murder the murderer? I’m not a psychologist, but we all have the duty to think this through:
“… for the state to take a convicted felon’s life is an extraordinary step. Hence, it is extraordinary to have a law that allows or even demands execution. Extraordinary acts and laws that support them must pass a high threshold of acceptance. The burden is on their supporters to make the case that execution of an individual is necessary for the collective good.” (source)
The threshold of acceptance is a very high bar when it comes to capital punishment. There may be an evolutionary argument for desiring revenge on those who might harm your brood, as a way of protecting your genetic legacy. But society has no evolutionary connection to Troy Davis’ alleged victims, so why do we allow the state to act as protector and enactor of revenge? It is one thing to say “If it happened to me …” but what of “If it happened to them . . ?”
The instinct for revenge is not the default in the extraordinary case of the state taking the life of a citizen. The default must be that all have a right to live (as is the moral basis for so much of our legal system), and the burden is on the state to proof that enacting death-for-death is socially and psychologically necessary.
They have proven no such thing. With no assurance that the state’s error rate is zero, we must assume that innocents have been killed. We know that racial bias grows and basic rights are trampled. Yet the state continues to kill rather than pause to correct. This is irreconcilable. We punish the killer’s desire for vengeance by sentencing them to death, but reward the state’s desire for vengeance in the same breath? This is irreconcilable. We view state-sponsored genocide as an ultimate evil, but when applying our own national psychology to capital punishment seem to be immune to the dissonance. This is irreconcilable. Killers act by free will, but we are bound to an unassailable desire for vengeance? This is irreconcilable. That so many who support capital punishment by Earthly states also believe in heavenly judgment as the ultimate justice? This is irreconcilable.
Beyond the racism, beyond the legal conflicts of capital punishment, beyond the religious influences at work, we must take stock of our national psychology. Are we, the most enlightened species on Earth, content to be slaves to some alleged evolutionary desire for revenge, to kill killers?
I prefer to focus on our better tendencies, and I view the evolution of human psychology as forward progress. Capital punishment must be left behind in our social history, and we must move forward in our psychological evolution.
May 22nd, 2008
Killer spared from death hours before execution
(Reuters) - The parole board in the state of Georgia spared a convicted killer from execution hours before he was due to die by lethal injection on Thursday and commuted his sentence to life in prison.
The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles made its decision less than three hours before Samuel David Crowe, 47, was to be executed, according to a spokeswoman for the state’s prisons.
“After careful and exhaustive consideration of the requests, the board voted to grant clemency. The board voted to commute the sentence to life without parole,” the parole board said.
Crowe’s death would have marked the third execution since the U.S. Supreme Court lifted an unofficial moratorium on the death penalty last month.
Crowe was not present at the parole board hearing in Atlanta. He had already eaten his last meal and was preparing to enter the execution chamber at the prison in Jackson, Georgia, Mallie McCord of the Georgia Department of Corrections said.
In March 1988, Crowe killed store manager Joseph Pala during a robbery at the lumber company in Douglas County, west of Atlanta. Crowe, who had previously worked at the store, shot Pala three times with a pistol, beat him with a crowbar and a pot of paint.
Crowe pleaded guilty to armed robbery and murder and was sentenced to death the following year.
“David (Crowe) takes full responsibility for his crime and experiences profound remorse,” according to Georgians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, an advocacy group, who welcomed the board’s decision.
At Thursday’s hearing, his lawyers presented a dossier of evidence attesting to his remorse and good behavior in jail, according to local media reports. The lawyers also said he was suffering from withdrawal symptoms from a cocaine addiction at the time of the crime.
The U.S. Supreme Court on April 16 rejected a challenge to the three-drug cocktail used in most U.S. executions, which opponents claimed inflicted unnecessary pain. Georgia then conducted an execution on May 5.
Georgia has executed 41 men since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1973 and this week it had 109 prisoners on death row.
For a point of comparison.
And an interesting (and completely unsurprising) point of comparison it is.
So he got a stay not because there was doubt he shot is co-worker with a gun and beat the shit out of him with a crowbar and a bucket of paint, but because he was a good boy in jail and was high when he committed the crime.
When an execution is stayed anywhere in the world, the Colosseum in Rome is illuminated in gold lights.
We will not see this for Troy Davis, as his execution is scheduled for the next 30 minutes. There are still more death row inmates, more like Troy Davis. Let’s not just sweep this under the rug as disappointing news tonight, but build upon it to abolish the death penalty.
I’ve written a great many words about the death penalty over the past week (here and here) and many people have seen fit to read them, to think about them, to share them widely across the internet, and to discuss them with me. For this I have been extremely grateful.
I think it’s safe to assume that not a single one of the people who attended the GOP debate last night read any of those words. That’s not surprising; I’m an academic blogger with a fairly narrow readership. Of course, the debate audience likely also didn’t read this excellent and unsettling piece about Cameron Todd Willingham. And they haven’t read anything about Troy Davis. They certainly don’t know the names of any of the people who have been released from death row after evidence of their innocence came to light. In fact, they probably don’t know that any such people exist.
I would happily wager that they haven’t read much of anything about the death penalty they so vigorously applauded. Their support for it is, in the words of Sister Helen Prejean, “a mile wide and an inch deep.” They do it reflexively, without a care in the world. They hear “justice” and, like Pavlov’s dogs, they salivate. But they haven’t spent any time considering what “justice” means; the only context in which they seem to understand it is when it is used as a synonym for vengeance.
This is the justice that is done to someone else. Never to them, never to anyone they care about or have even met. That situation is one they cannot even imagine; their privileged position affords them the opportunity to sit in judgment of another person without even considered what life must be like for someone who ends up on death row or for someone who cares about a death row inmate. Indeed, for a great many, their position is so privileged that they do not even recognize that privilege exists.
This is what underlies the applause and this what underlies Rick Perry’s absolute certainty that not a single one of the people on death row in Texas might be innocent of the crime for which he has been condemned. And this is what separates me from the applauding audience members and from someone like Rick Perry; I know what death row looks like, I’ve talked with condemned men, and because of my interaction with the death penalty in this country I’ve been given a good look at the privileged life I lead.
There is nothing to applaud when people die. There is nothing to applaud when people fail to examine their own lives and the good fortune they have had. There is nothing to applaud when our leaders do not understand the difference between justice and vengeance. There is nothing to applaud when people believe that the only thing our government can do properly is inject some citizens full of poison.
The deaths that this audience applauded are the deaths of human beings, more than 200 human beings. No matter what they did — and I don’t pretend that they were all innocent, kind, or virtuous — they were human beings. Their deaths ought not to be cheered like we would cheer at some sporting event. Their deaths did not make us safer and they certainly did not make us better. What that audience applauded was its own smug self-satisfaction, its distinct pleasure at not knowing or caring or empathizing.
By the time you read this, you’ll likely know that the progressives are already making jokes about Rick Perry and about the blood-thirsty audience. I began to see them on Twitter less than an hour after the debate’s conclusion. But there isn’t anything funny about what happened. It signals, in fact, how deeply divided we are in this country: this crowd believes that Americans fall into two camps, but it isn’t the divide that Republicans politicians have been suggesting between the “real” Americans who love freedom and family values, on the one hand, and some other “fake” Americans who hate those things, on the other. This spontaneous applause demonstrates the divide as it actually us: between those with whom these supposed “real” Americans can identify and those with whom they cannot. In the former camp are the Americans whose life experience is similar to the life experience of these audience members; they are similar in appearance, they grew up in similar circumstances, they face similar daily challenges. In the latter camp is everyone else, those who don’t look like “real” Americans, whose names don’t sound like “real” American names, whose religion is not the dominant one, whose life experiences do not bear even a remote resemblance to the experiences of the “real” Americans in that audience. And because the “real” Americans cannot recognize how privileged are the lives they lead, how well-off they are in so many ways, they cannot empathize in any way with those other Americans; indeed, far from attempting to care about their plight, they do not even consider those other Americans. They are not objects of care or respect and thus, when some of them commit terrible crimes and are executed, these “real” Americans cheer those executions because they are not “real” deaths. They are, instead, better likened to the way we destroy the dangerous dogs that snap at our children. We are so deeply divided in this country that one group cannot even recognize that the deaths they are applauding are the deaths of human beings like themselves, who once had hopes and dreams, plans for the future, and families who loved them. No one should be surprised, then, that these “real” Americans don’t want to be taxed to provide much-needed basic services for others or that they refer to people, not actions, as “illegal.”
The two minutes shown in the video clip above are, for me, absolutely heart-breaking; those two minutes speak volumes about the state of affairs in this country. This crowd, the one that broke out into spontaneous, extended applause at the mention of the death of more than two hundred people, is the pro-life crowd. They profess a deep and abiding belief in Christianity and blithely ignore the messages of forgiveness and mercy at the very heart of their religion. They are fiscally conservative and cheer for a shockingly expensive, unnecessary government expenditure. They have a fundamental distrust of the government and can’t wait to vote for someone who believes that the government — with all of its many, many flaws — ought to be in the business of deciding life and death.
This is either a stunning display of dishonesty or of stupidity. Either way, it is all terrifying and profoundly sad. It actually makes me feel that this is a group of people as disconnected from me and my experiences as they are from those whose deaths they applauded. The difference is that, if they think about this at all, it pleases them. I am unsure how we bridge that divide, but I am absolutely convinced that such a deep division on the very nature of our relationship to one another ought to be considered a crisis by anyone who cares about the future of this country.