“For those about to take my life, God have mercy on your souls. And may God bless your souls.” -Troy Davis
The last words of Troy Davis, executed in the early hours of Thursday morning, resonate with those who read them precisely because they remind us of the inveterate reality that miscarriages of justice can, and do, take place. Evidence that may at one time seem irrefutable can later be shown to be without foundation or, at the very least, insufficient to warrant the ending of a life. The circumstances surrounding the Davis trial were dubious, the testimonies questionable and the evidence insubstantial. There are no grey areas when it comes to such a punishment, and no opportunities for reconsideration.
Irrespective of the extent to which Davis was complicit in the murder of policeman Mark MacPhail in Georgia in 1989, the mere possibility of his innocence and the court’s subsequent response is reason enough for us to look closely at the ambiguity surrounding Davis’ guilt and the need to explore the case’s wider ethical repercussions is particularly pertinent given that the two e-petitions seeking debate in this case have, at the time of writing, collectively attracted more than 50,000 signatures. Are there incontrovertible benefits to be arrived at by way of sentencing criminals to death? Would it ever be permissible to tacitly consent to the occasional innocent death via wrongful conviction if the overall effect on society was positive?
Without doubt, the most commonly deployed argument from those in favor of capital punishment is its utility as a deterrent against heinous crimes such as rape and murder. “One only has to look at studies and statistics concerning murderers who have been let out to kill again to realize that the death penalty does work as a deterrent.” It is a view that is seemingly logically consistent at first glance, yet despite the appeal to ‘statistics,’ they helpfully fail to offer anything in the way of quantitative data.
A little digging, however, soon reveals that the ‘deterrence’ argument is not as black and white as it is often presented; a study published in 1998 detailing murder rates in the world’s major cities revealed that the number of murders per 100,000 citizens in London stood at 2.1. In Philadelphia, where capital punishment is very much in operation, the figure stood at 27.4. These figures are not, of course, gospel , for one thing, any number of extenuating factors aside from capital punishment , be they social, economic or cultural , could account for such variations. What seems clear, however, is that the deterrence argument is not a trump card. In the face of the threat of death, experience from other countries demonstrates that murders will continue apace, with little evidence that criminals feel put off by the prospect of losing their life.
Yet what of those who readily acknowledge this reality and yet still advocate capital punishment? The overriding sentiment here is seemingly one of revenge and reprisal borne out of contempt for the perpetrators of atrocious acts of violence. Justification of this viewpoint is in keeping with “an eye for an eye;” if you are prepared to end a life, it therefore follows that you must expect yours to end too. The problem, however, arises when we delve deeper into the implications of a death sentence, given the propensity of legal systems in all countries to, quite frankly, get it wrong. To be placed on death row has, time and time again, proven not to be absolute evidence of guilt, and there is little to suggest that this will change.
To take the example of Philadelphia once more, it is interesting to note that between 1986 and 2005 six people were exonerated while awaiting execution on death row, narrowly avoiding paying the ultimate price for a crime that they did not commit. These are the relatively lucky few, however, and clearly do not represent all innocent people who find themselves erroneously charged with grievous deeds. Whether innocent or, as in the case of Troy Davis, where the evidence gradually dissipates and leaves the principle of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ in tatters, there is a need in any intelligent discussion of capital punishment to acknowledge the axiom that innocent people are, from time to time, on the receiving end of misappropriated death sentences. Where high-profile mass murderers such as Pol Pot are concerned, many of us instinctively and unreservedly support execution, however where there is reason to suspect innocence, cases such as that of Troy Davis have demonstrated if it were needed the utterly unparalleled consequences of sentencing individuals to death.
If we are to have a sensible debate surrounding the death penalty, there is a fundamental need to learn the lessons of other countries, to recognize the myriad failings of US states, most importantly their failure to categorically determine guilt or innocence in a multiplicity of cases, is essential. We must also dispense with the formulaic notion that capital punishment results in a decline in the number of murders, a notion that runs up against difficulties as soon as it is subjected to quantitative analysis. Evidence would have to be beyond doubt, and no stone left unturned. Ultimately, of course, there is rarely absolute certitude save in the case of confessions when it comes to cases of such severity. Whether or not we can abide the loss of the occasional innocent life in order to ensure that the overwhelmingly guilty majority receive a punishment befitting their crime is a pressing issue, and one to which there is no obvious answer. It is for individuals to delve into their consciences, to debate and discuss, and to ultimately arrive at their own moral conclusions.
Yet regardless of one’s ethical and philosophical thoughts on execution, the essential reality of capital punishment under capitalism is that it ultimately serves a justice system which is dominated by capitalism’s hegemony. Justice is not “blind” insofar as it is “without bias.” Rather, its agenda specifically benefits those in power. Therefor, in a society dominated by capitalist ownership in all things, from industry to the courts, capital punishment serves a capitalist interest. Class, ethnicity and ideology become factors in how capitalism’s justice system doles out punishments. Despite what one may think of capital punishment divorced from these realities, the material reality remains the same: in a society ruled by capital and its enforcers, guilt and innocence, freedom and death, are decided by those whose interests are not abstract principles of “justice” but the defense of power. We must therefore stand against it, for the “justice” in capitalism’s death penalty serves not workers, but their oppressors, and is ultimately blind to this reality.