Thursday, September 22, 2011

Speaker for the Dead

Wednesday, 7:39pm: "Imagine how apprehensive you get before a presentation, or an interview. Your heart beats quickly, you take a deep breath, and tell yourself, "I got this!" - Imagine feeling that, knowing that at 7:00, you had a big thing to do. You had to walk into a room, sit down, take a needle in the arm...and die. Forever. There's no way in hell the death penalty is right. #iamTroyDavis" - post I left on a friend's Facebook wall.

Last night, at approximately 7:00pm, Georgia inmate Troy Davis was to be executed. After a US Supreme Court last-minute consideration, a 10:20pm announcement was made: he would be killed. As of today, Troy Davis is dead. In Texas, Lawrence Brewe was executed the same evening, shortly after 6:00pm.

The blog post I originally intended to publish here will not be viewable until Monday, when the Tufts Daily publishes it as an opinion editorial.

An enormous publicity campaign centered around this execution, prompting a viral "#toomuchdoubt" trend on Twitter and an outburst of protests worldwide. Much of this centered around the lack of evidence in the case, including the recanted testimony of seven key witnesses responsible for Davis's conviction. Much of the outrage from the international community, however, went beyond the mere likelihood of innocence: it was the penalty to which they objected.

One-hundred and thirty-seven countries have abolished the death penalty to date, with Argentina, Chile, and Uzbekistan most recently joining the collective in 2008. The United States still practices execution, despite its abolition in 14 of the nation's states. New Hampshire and Kansas, although not counted, have not performed an execution to date since it was first outlawed by the US Supreme Court in the 1970s (the Court later overturned their ruling).

In 2007, New Jersey repealed it's death penalty. In 2009, New Mexico followed. In 2011, Illinois joined their ranks. The trend should continue.

The Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional for the insane in 1985unconstitutional for minors in 2004,  and unconstitutional for non-homicidal cases of rape in 2007, all under the eighth amendment protecting against cruel and unusual punishment.

In 1994, Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun wrote his famous dissenting opinion on a Texas death penalty case. This marked a dramatic change in Blackmun's views. When he first entered the court, he was staunchly conservative and determined to bring criminals to justice; by the time he heard this case, he was beginning to understand the inherent incompatibility of execution and the justice he sought. He wrote:

"We hope...that the defendant whose life is at risk will be represented by...someone who is inspired by the awareness that a less-than-vigorous defense...could have fatal consequences for the defendant. We hope that the attorney will investigate all aspects of the case, follow all evidentiary and procedural rules, and appear before a judge...committed to the protection of defendants' rights...

But even if we can feel confident that these actors will fulfill their roles...our collective conscience will remain uneasy. Twenty years have passed since this court declared that the death penalty must be imposed fairly and with reasonable consistency or not at all, and despite the effort of the states and courts to devise legal formulas and procedural rules to meet this...challenge, the death penalty remains fraught with arbitrariness, discrimination...and mistake...

From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death....I feel...obligated simply to concede that the death penalty experiment has failed. It is virtually self-evident to me now that no combination of procedural rules or substantive regulations ever can save the death penalty from its inherent constitutional deficiencies... Perhaps one day this court will develop procedural rules or verbal formulas that actually will provide consistency, fairness and reliability in a capital-sentencing scheme. I am not optimistic that such a day will come. I am more optimistic, though, that this court eventually will conclude that the effort to eliminate arbitrariness while preserving fairness 'in the infliction of [death] is so plainly doomed to failure that it and the death penalty must be abandoned altogether.' (Godfrey v. Georgia, 1980) I may not live to see that day, but I have faith that eventually it will arrive."

Justice Blackmun died in 1999, just before the turn of the millenium. He never lived to see the day when the United States abolished its most horrific violation of human rights. But I intend to.

Before I die, I will see a country that has no such thing as "death chambers." I will walk the streets of a country where no one fears slaughter by the government, where the only execution is that of justice and law. I am reminded now, more than ever, of my responsibility in creating that country.

Moments after the Court announced their decision to allow the execution, the crowd of hundreds of people outside the prison began crying, not shouting. The grandson of the man Davis allegedly killed was heartbroken that his grandfather's memory will serve to kill another man. And online, someone posted the most reasonable, optimistic, and beautiful response I could have anticipated from a community of outraged protesters:

Let this be the turning point this country needs.

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