In the United States, where the work of Innocence Projects like the Medill School of Journalism in Chicago, and Cardozo School of Law in New York, have exposed holes in the judicial process over the last 20 years, the death penalty has become a topic of considerable debate. Numerous legal professionals, journalists and public intellectuals have weighed in to espouse their views, many of them speaking out in opposition. Despite this remonstrance, however, Gallup polls indicate that roughly two-thirds of Americans still support the death penalty.
Ostensibly, the merits of capital punishment are many. After all, what legal recourse could offer a greater deterrent to the commission of murder than a judiciary which exacts an eye for an eye? What could be more just than ending the life of a killer? Surely evil deserves its due.
The problem is that two wrongs do not make a right. Likewise, the attempt to vanquish evil with evil frequently produces not deliverance from evil, but evil twofold.
While the legal system in North America is usually reliable, there will never be complete certainty in “justice.” Otherwise, we’d have no need of judge or jury, expert testimony, or trials that can last months, or years. There would be no need for the “golden thread” of our justice system – the presumption of innocence for accused persons. If we could establish a person’s guilt beyond the narrowest sliver of a doubt, perhaps the death penalty would stand beyond reproach. But we can’t.
Troy Davis, the Georgia man who was executed last year for the shooting murder of police officer Mark MacPhail in 1989 – a crime he likely did not commit – is just one of many examples of this shortcoming. Davis was chosen out of a group of black men, and while it’s possible that he pulled the trigger, it’s equally possible that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The right man may have been sentenced to death, but it’s equally possible that the wrong man was.
The uncertainty of justice always begs the question: what if? What if Davis was innocent? And if he was, what does that mean?
It means the state has sponsored the killing of an innocent person. Even worse, it means the state did so with premeditation and malice aforethought. In this horror scenario, two innocent men are dead, while the true culprit remains perpetually free, and the case closed forever. What sort of justice is that?
Sadly, in jurisdictions that embrace the death penalty, it’s the sort of justice that too often occurs. There are no absolutes in a murder trial, there is no incontrovertible evidence, and there is no proof of guilt. Accordingly, there is no way to avoid the execution of innocent people, or the inadvertent liberation of murderers.
There are myriad reasons to jettison the death penalty. But in my view, this reality alone is sufficiently compelling.