It's just really tragic that after all the horrors of the last 1,000 years, we can't leave behind something as primitive as government sponsored execution.
September 29, 2011 Imagine a 200-car freight train like you may have encountered at a railroad crossing -- how slow to get moving, seemingly endless in length, on a course that can rarely be changed, nearly impossible to stop, incredibly dangerous if you get in its way. That's what the death penalty in America is like.
A train like that left the station in Savannah, Ga., about 20 years ago. Somewhere along the way, this train apparently lost its brakes and its ability to get off the main track and onto a siding. It has hurt a lot of people on its long, slow journey, and last Wednesday night, while passing through the small town of Jackson, it killed a man named Troy Davis. It was a tragedy, but no accident. This train will continue to hurt people until somebody can get it stopped.
Our train was set in motion by a person in Savannah who apparently learned habits of violence as a child. A homeless man named Larry Young had just bought some beer. This fellow accosted Young in a parking lot and demanded a beer. Young refused. The story is a bit confused here, but it appears the man pulled a gun and pistol-whipped him. At that point, a 27-year-old off-duty Savannah policeman named Mark MacPhail, moonlighting nearby as a security guard, rushed to Young's aid. The guy shot him twice, killing him.
Here's where it gets really confusing, because there was no videotape of the event or any DNA evidence to test or any murder weapon or anyone's clothing with gunpowder residue on it. There were a few shell casings that authorities originally thought significant, but it has since been determined that no conclusions can be drawn from them. There is only the testimony of eyewitnesses who saw something from a distance at night in a poorly lighted Savannah parking lot.
Sylvester "Redd" Coles went to the police the night after the shooting and said he was present and witnessed Troy Davis pistol-whip Larry Young and shoot Officer MacPhail. It appears uncontested that both Davis and Coles were present, and Coles admitted hassling Young about beer. Davis testified that he left the scene before MacPhail was shot, and that Coles was the one who struck Young. Coles admitted he owned a .38 caliber pistol -- the type that killed MacPhail -- but alleged that only Davis was carrying such a weapon that night.
At trial, numerous witnesses testified that they saw Davis shoot MacPhail, including Coles and Young. Two others said he later confessed to them about the murder. That testimony persuaded the jury to convict Davis and sentence him to death.
Almost all those witnesses, with the exception of Coles, have since recanted their testimony, several saying that they were coerced by police into making statements against Davis that were not true. Other witnesses have come forward and identified Coles as the shooter; several testified that Coles later confessed to them that he shot MacPhail. All this has happened over the 20 years of state and federal appeals of the conviction and death sentence.
You would think that all this uncertainty would cause a higher court to question and probably overturn the jury's finding of guilt. But that's not how the criminal justice system works, especially in capital cases. The train starts off slowly enough, presuming the defendant's innocence and requiring the prosecution to prove its case "beyond a reasonable doubt." By the time this is done, however, the train has gained a full head of steam. The law's concern with certainty of guilt morphs into a concern with finality in the decision-making process. The burden shifts in the appeals process to the defendant to show that errors were made in the conduct of the trial that rendered it materially unfair or unconstitutional. If objections were not made and preserved at trial to those errors, they generally cannot even be raised on appeal. And in federal habeas appeals, if the claim is that the defendant is factually innocent, new evidence not available at the time of trial must be produced to prove innocence to an even more demanding standard than the proof-beyond-a-reasonable-doubt required of the prosecution at trial. It's an incredibly difficult standard to meet.
So Troy Davis is now dead, executed by lethal injection, because the train must reach its final destination, whether we are certain that the result is just or not. Nearly a million people, including the pope, a former president, former wardens and prosecutors and congressmen, and three of his jurors pleaded, not to free Troy Davis, but just that we not kill him. The train could not be stopped.
The train hurt a lot of others along the way:
-- Law enforcement personnel, thinking they were building a case against a vile murderer, pressured witnesses to make statements that turned out not to be true. Are they responsible for an innocent man's death, and for the fact that a murderer still walks free in their community? How well do they sleep at night?
-- Witnesses caved to police pressure and implicated an innocent man. Did they kill Troy Davis?
-- Jurors assumed the prosecution was giving them verified and accurate evidence, and on the basis of that evidence, they sentenced Davis to death. How many will feel responsible -- and betrayed -- until their last breath?
-- Corrections personnel grew to know Troy Davis as a human being and to like him for his spirituality, his integrity, his gentleness and compassion -- and then had to participate in killing him. Davis' final words forgave them: "May God bless your souls." How much counseling will be necessary for them to forgive themselves?
-- Officer MacPhail's family waited 22 years to see justice for their son, husband, father. Henceforth they will have to contemplate, whether they admit it or not, that the wrong man may have been convicted and killed.
-- Of course, what can be said about the Davis family? And what about the millions of Americans who want to have confidence that their justice system is just, but whose faith is now badly shaken?
The train is not unstoppable. Frequently, it is stopped before a tragedy occurs -- 138 people have been freed from America's death rows because their innocence was established before they were killed. In Oregon, six people convicted of murder over the past quarter-century have been exonerated. Fortunately, none had been sentenced to death.
But of the 1,269 people who have been executed in America since 1977, how many were, in fact, innocent? Probability would say in the double digits. Maybe it's less than that. Conservatively, we can say at least several. In their cases, the train was just too overpowering. Is that acceptable? Do we get enough benefit from the death penalty to make it worth it? With true lifetime imprisonment, we have the ability to protect society without killing people, and at much less cost.
Oregon can stop the train by a vote of the people. Let's not risk what Georgia just did, or what Texas has done more than once. Let's repeal Oregon's death penalty.
David McNeil is a member of the board of Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
The original article can be found at http://www.oregonlive.com/opinion/index.ssf/2011/09/death_penalty_victim...