Last night, Troy Davis became yet another casualty in the costly human saga of the American justice system. Despite a lengthy delay by the Supreme Court and an international outcry, Davis was still killed by lethal injection for the alleged murder of off-duty policeman Mark Allen MacPhail in 1989, a crime which it increasingly seems he may not have committed.
Even the highest court in the land could not ultimately administer justice. After delaying execution for four hours, during which Davis allegedly protested his innocence strapped to the gurney, humanity and justice failed us. He was pronounced dead at 11.08pm.
In 2009, I visited Angola Prison, Louisiana’s State Penitentiary. That afternoon, a tour-guide with flared jeans, a straw hat, and a naval-style shirt showed us the prisoners’ living quarters, classrooms, and their canteen. He walked us along death row. But that wasn’t all.
Around one corner and we were standing in a waiting area with a water tank and seats. Around the next corner, we were in the Louisiana State Penitentiary execution chamber. Standing at the head of the “bed,” our guide described how sodium thiopental “knocks ‘em unconscious,” then Pavulon puts their muscles and respiratory system to sleep, before potassium chloride kills the heart and brain. “Then,” he drawled, obviously enjoying himself, “You dead … Dead, dead, dead.”
This is what Davis endured in Jackson, Georgia after the state’s Board of Pardons and Paroles refused to grant him clemency. Despite a vast campaign that grew internationally with charities, former-presidents, popes, politicians, and celebrities, the 42-year-old African-American was executed.
Davis becomes the fourth state death in Georgia this year, the 52nd since 1976. But the evidence against him is far from certain. No forensic evidence links Davis to MacPhail’s murder, and six (out of nine) witnesses say another man committed the crime.
The last executions in the UK took place in 1964, and capital punishment was abolished by law in 1969. But a YouGov poll this year found around 60% in favour of reinstating it. So I understand why an American might defend the death penalty. But to the international community, it seems bizarrely out of sync with the history and ideals of the United States.
The majority of states still use the death penalty; only 16 do not. Although a nationwide problem, 80% of executions take place in the South. It’s the “Death Belt” just as much as it is the Bible’s.
But a justice system based on regional and religious prejudices is not a justice system at all. Politicians in Washington admonish countries which follow “Islamic law” at a national level (ex. Iran and Saudi Arabia) while practising their very own “Christian law” at home.
Meanwhile the constitution permanently enshrines the right to violence, thanks to the Second Amendment. Not only does the right to keep and bear arms legitimize violence on a federal level; it condones it in theory, while punishing it with death in practice. It is legislation with immeasurable human cost.
From my view in England, the criminal justice system looks even more contradictory. While the military launches raids and drops bombs on Afghan, Iraqi, and Libyan civilians – an exercise which has cost approximately 874,500 innocent lives since 2001 – criminals at home, whether proven, suspected, or even innocent, are executed in scores each year.
Photo Credit: Amnesty International Southern Regional Office