Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Dangers of Satisfaction: Thoughts On The Death Penalty, Troy Davis, And Guilty Versus Innocent

Even somebody with only a handful of facts about the case (ie, me) suspects that a massive injustice went down in Georgia last night, when, despite last-minute appeals to the Supreme Court, and despite a whole host of irregularities during both the original investigation and the ensuing trial, Troy Davis was executed by the state of Georgia for the killing of a Savannah police officer twenty-two years prior. The case attracted extraordinary attention both in this country and worldwide, leading to strong condemnations and pleas for clemency. In the end, doubts were cast aside and the lethal injection made its way down the intravenous tubing.

Interestingly enough, on the same night Davis’ final appeal was rejected, a man named Lawrence Russell Brewer was executed by the state of Texas, also by lethal injection. There were no large groups of protesters assembled to plea on Brewer’s behalf, other than a few scattered members of his own family. Worldwide concern and condemnation did not rain down upon East Texas as it did Central Georgia. And this is not surprising. Brewer was one of several white supremacists who chained a black man named James Byrd to the back of a pickup truck and dragged him to his death along a rural road soaked in blood and body parts. Clearly guilty, and clearly motivated by race hatred in his crime, the likes of Brewer do not often inspire death penalty opponents to make their case.

 But here is where things get very complicated. I remain firmly opposed to the death penalty, a stance I slowly arrived at and have continued to ponder. Cases like Troy Davis are the ones that tend to rope in both the party faithful and less-committed outsiders, those who remain unconvinced of the inherent barbarity of capital punishment but are roused to action when it involves an innocent life. However, this seems to me a somewhat dangerous exercise – or if that’s too strong a word, a morally ambiguous band-aid for a larger problem.

I actually shy away from making the you-may-be-killing-an-innocent-person argument when I speak against the death penalty, partly because it doesn't get to the heart of what's wrong with it in my eyes. Obviously, killing an innocent individual is a monstrous deed, and most people would agree with that – indeed, anybody who would not should be asked to leave the discussion (Such people, I am led to believe, do actually exist). But if we construct our opposition to the death penalty along guilty versus innocent arguments, a slippery debate ensues over varying levels and degrees of outrage, which eventually leads to people making decisions on what is and is not a crime worthy of capital punishment. We begin to weigh certain factors and cast aside particular circumstances – we enter the perilous realm of counting stab wounds to tally up an atrocity ballot.

For me, the issue comes down to (among many other things) the fact that execution flies in the face of all our other societal approaches to law and punishment. The concept of revenge has effectively been removed from the court of law as a justified course of action - we deal with reparations, monetary payments, removal from active society, etc. Given the possibility of life without parole and a guarantee that predators and monsters would pose no threat to any other innocent soul, execution's only reason for existence is to allow victim's families a sense of closure, which manifests itself as revenge.

 In no other aspect of our contemporary society do we allow revenge to play this kind of a state-sanctioned and legal role. It's understandable that victim's families might want to see killers receive the ultimate sentence - it's a basic and primal human urge. But courts and the law exist to pursue punishment rather than leaving it up to the aggrieved. The fact that so many death penalty proponents point to victim's families as the reason they support the death penalty suggests they understand very well that the primary motivation for capital punishment is revenge for impacted parties. It makes sense - and yet it's a perversion of justice.

The New York Times, among other news sources, has reported that, “One of the witnesses, a radio reporter from WSB in Atlanta, said it appeared that the MacPhail family ‘seemed to get some satisfaction’ from the execution”. Again, I don’t question or condemn the family for these feelings or urges. To be sure, some extraordinary individuals in other cases have urged for mercy on the grounds of forgiveness or a desire to end the spiral of violence. But we recognize this as extraordinary because we also suspect that such efforts come from a deeper well of morality or inner strength than many of us probably possess. Left alone in a room with an individual we suspect or are convinced murdered our child or spouse or sibling, many of us, no doubt, would rush to tear them to literal pieces. This is why the law does not place victim’s families alone in rooms with accused murderers. I refuse to begrudge the family of Mark MacPhail for seeming to “get some satisfaction” from Troy Davis’ death. But I begrudge the state of Georgia and our own deeply flawed and unjust system for placing vengeful satisfaction above every other corrective to those who would have or might have done harm. 

1 comment:

Cam Patterson said...

Normal Mailer articulated the revenge rationale for capital punishment better than anyone, although to my recollection his extraction of this idea focused on the community rather than the victims. In any event, the path to abolishing the death penalty has less to do with the innocence argument and more to do with understanding and refuting the urge to communal revenge. I wish it were more logical than this.