Thursday, September 22, 2011

Should Troy Davis have been executed?

There's been a lot of chatter these past few days, and especially today, about Troy Davis. Last night, Davis was executed for murder of which he was convicted a few decades ago. This execution, in particular, has become quite a flash point, obviously. My Facebook feed is filled with people who are in sincere angst and anger over this execution. Me? To my great surprise, I find myself somewhat confused, and ambivalent, in a way.

Let me be clear—I opposed this execution. But, I opposed it because I oppose all executions—I am against the Death Penalty. I've written about my reasons before, so I won't go into them in detail, here. My colleauge Larry Bach has a blog post about the Jewish view of this - a lengthy look at the Rabbinic approach, which is to essentially remove the Death Penalty from consideration, because of the impossibiilty of applying it morally.

My confusion is about this specific case. People are pointing to it as a crystal-clear example of why the death penalty is so bad—because, in this case, a seemingly innocent man was executed. One of the arguments against the death penalty (it's my argument, along with Rambam's, in Bach's post) is that, so long as we execute criminals, we run a real risk, and eventual near certainty, of killing an innocent man. And that is, simply, unacceptable. Better to let 1000 criminals go free than execute one innocent man. And, in these cases, we wouldn't be letting them go free–we'd be keeping them in jail, for life. It seems almost ridiculously obvious to me.

But, let's imagine for a moment that I didn't accept that argument. That I believed that it was possible to perfectly implement the death penalty, or that it was worth the risk of innocent death. Were that me, I'm not sure I would have opposed this case.

Everyone (at least everyone I've been reading) seems absolutely sure that Davis was innocent (at least of this crime). And, there are good reasons for those beliefs—witnesses who recanted, lack of physical evidence, other people who may have confessed, etc. Pretty damning stuff.

But, yesterday, I read an article from the cases prosecutor:

"This is fuzzy thinking. This is what happens when you try a criminal case in the streets, when it becomes a public relations campaign," the former D.A. said. "When it's in a court, you get disciplined thinking. We've won every time the thinking has been disciplined."

If you care about this case, it's worth a read. Essentially, he's saying that the counter evidence is what's deeply flawed. The shallow treatment it gets in the press makes it seem valid, but when put under proper, rigorous scrutiny, in court, the truth becomes clear. Guilty, without a reasonable doubt.

You know what's scary? I have no idea what to believe. I have not read the legal documents, nor would I be likely to understand them, if I did. That's probably true for you, too. I haven't read a single piece which tries to look at both sides of the issue. Which takes the prosecutions case, along with the defense, seriously. Which tries to understand, rather than just advocate. Does anyone have anything like that? I'd really love to read it!

In the end, this is just a small plank in my anti-death penalty stance - the unavoidable nature of uncertainty, which therefore makes it impossible to fairly impose the Death Penalty. But, on a less important level, this is just one more reminder, in an endless stream of reminders, that certainty is usually there for those who want it, but is usually lacking when we look carefully.


Lisa Robbins said...

Well-written Rabbi Rosenberg. I appreciate the statement about court of law vs. court of public opinion -- unless you are sitting in that court room, you don't know what's true (or least have the facts to review closely). I wasn't sure what my stance was before I read your post, but you do a good job of convincing me that there has to be a better way than execution. It makes me wonder about the costs of execution vs. keeping people in jail forever.

Fantail Lifestyle said...

Good article Rabbi Rosenberg.

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