The state of Georgia executed Troy Davis, America’s most famous death row prisoner, earlier this week despite a widespread international campaign for clemency, and eleventh hour appeals from the Pope, former president Jimmy Carter and Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The execution followed more than 20 years of legal wrangling and a remarkable range of support – which included proponents of capital punishment who harboured serious doubts about the evidence used to convict Davis. After three earlier stays of execution, Davis lost a clemency vote taken by the Georgia Parole Board (3-2) a few days ago and was given a lethal injection late last Wednesday.
Davis was convicted of killing Mark MacPhail, an off-duty policeman, in 1989. After being placed on death row in 1991 he embarked on a legal odyssey which eventually raised serious concerns about the fairness of the trial he had received. While his case was receiving renewed attention, a large number of death row prisoners were exonerated by DNA evidence but that line of appeal was never open to Davis because the case against him was not based on any physical evidence. Without a murder weapon, the prosecutors relied on nine eyewitnesses who identified Davis as the shooter in the MacPhail killing. Subsequently, seven of these witnesses recanted their testimony and claimed that they had been subjected to police intimidation. Several claimed that they had been tipped off to Davis’ identity before being shown photographs of potential suspects. Together, these facts threw into sharp focus the shortcomings of the US criminal justice system – particularly its tendency to convict and execute a disproportionate number of black men. Davis, who maintained his innocence to the very end – became an iconic figure of America’s uncertainty about its “peculiar institution.”
The Davis execution is a timely reminder that there are serious limits to the power of activism. An extraordinary international campaign made the circumstances of Davis’ arrest and trial familiar to millions of foreigners – the crowd outside his jail on the night of the execution included several Europeans who had flown in for the occasion. During the final days of his life thousands of letters were delivered to the state of Georgia and many human rights activists held reasonable hopes that he would either receive a commutation, pardon or a further stay of execution. But after twenty years of extremely expensive litigation – death penalty prosecutions cost the states that pursue them well over $1 million apiece – the system simply inched forward to its inevitable and deeply unsatisfactory conclusion. Bizarrely enough, a federal judge acknowledged that the original prosecution had not been conclusive but denied Davis the right to a retrial unless his attorneys could produce compelling proof of his innocence. This Alice-in-Wonderland inversion of the presumption of innocence simply shifted the burden of correcting the system from the judges who oversee it to those who stand to be consumed by errors, oversights and omissions.
Beyond questions of guilt and innocence, the Davis case gives further evidence that many Americans have begun to lose faith in some of their most familiar institutions. It is ironic that while newly liberated transitional states in the Middle East are eagerly debating the type of democracy they would like to build at home, mature democracies are riddled with doubt and dysfunction. Many Americans have begun to fear that their social, political and financial systems have simply lost their bearings. The traditional ideas of democracy – equality of opportunity, transparency, justice – seem poorly served by the realities of an expensive, biased and slow-moving legal system. This despair is compounded by the irrelevance of most contemporary political debates to the serious military, financial and social challenges that the country is also facing. Many human rights activists see the Davis case as a perfect example of why the death penalty should be abolished in America. What they fail to see is that the inadequacies of criminal justice belong to a wider series of systemic failures that are simply not being addressed by the country’s vaunted democracy. And, given the current political malaise in the United States, there is little reason to hope that any of these systems can be reformed any time soon.