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Georgia Probably Just Executed an Innocent Man

( Tami Chappell/Reuters / September 22, 2011 - People protest the impending execution of convicted killer Troy Davis at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification prison in Jackson, Georgia)

The state of Georgia put Troy Davis to death last week despite years of mounting evidence that he was innocent of the 1989 murder of Savannah police officer Mark McPhail for which he’d been tried and convicted in ’91.

With no forensic evidence tying him to the crime, the prosecution relied on the testimony of nine witnesses, seven of whom have since recanted, claiming the police coerced them into testifying against Davis. And the remaining two witnesses? One of them has been identified by others as the actual killer. The case against Davis was tainted from the start because police plastered Davis’s photograph across the state in connection to the killing.

Citing dire concerns about his actual guilt, six retired, high-ranking corrections officials sent a letter to Georgia corrections officials and Gov. Nathan Deal urging them to grant Davis clemency. This included Dr. Allen Ault, a retired director of the Georgia Department of Corrections and former warden of the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison.

That happened Wednesday morning. Davis was dead before midnight.

One might say, Well, he was on death row for two decades, he exhausted every appeal, the Supreme Court heard his case–surely all of these people wouldn’t want to execute an innocent man, right?

Actually, it doesn’t much matter how innocent they thought Davis was. Due to a law signed by then-President Bill Clinton called the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, the threshold to grant death row inmates a new trial is apparently high as the moon. The law effectively restricts “a federal court’s ability to judge whether a state court had correctly interpreted the U.S. Constitution,” according to Time. Bill Clinton, attempting to not weigh in on the case, said that DNA testing sure is real good, although as noted, this did not help Davis much.

Most Americans lie somewhere between, let’s say, me and the yahoos who burst into spontaneous applause at the Republican presidential debate because Rick Perry has overseen an unprecedented number of executions in the most death-penalty-happy state of Texas. Like our president, they believe that the death penalty should be reserved for the most heinous crimes. Perhaps a good example might be Lawrence Russell Brewer, a white supremacist convicted for the disgusting 1998 crime of dragging a black man, James Byrd Jr., behind a truck until he was not only dead but unrecognizable.

I understand the impulse, but I will always think of the death penalty as a symptom of a larger societal illness even if it’s utilized against someone as utterly deserving as Brewer. I count the death penalty as what activated me politically. My senior year of high school I randomly drew the anti-capital punishment stance for my senior social studies project, and the more I read about it the more utterly apparent it became how completely screwed up it is.

Capital punishment is not used so much to rid society of our worst criminals but as a cudgel that comes down most often on minorities and the poor, those least likely to be able to afford to mount a defense against a prosecution with essentially unlimited state resources. Furthermore, investigative journalists have in the last five years thrown back the curtain on the utter bullshit that can be “forensic evidence,” and anyone who begins to look into CSI-obsessed America begins to find that the criminal justice system is brimming with flaws, loopholes, obfuscation, corruption, and outright lies that convict innocent people all the time.

The most egregious example has to be Cameron Todd Willingham, whose execution was basically fast-tracked by Gov. Perry. I’ve written about Willingham before but keep returning to it because of how hideous the whole mess is. This was a man who was executed in 2004 for burning his children alive, when in fact, he did no such thing. He was a dad who lost all three of his daughters in an accidental fire in 1991, and then got rolled into an arson case by an investigator who was basically making stuff up as he went along. He spent the rest of his life in prison and died with a needle in his arm for a crime he didn’t commit that was already the loss of his life.

It’s tired to point out that it’s usually the people who trust government the least who think it should be marching people to their deaths the fastest, but such are the bizarre contours of American politics. Needless to say, even if one does believe in the morality of killing people to show society that killing is wrong, it’s impossible to argue that criminal justice is not a highly imperfect system rife with mistakes.

Those mistakes should not lead to cases like Troy Davis, and I truly believe you have to be demented to think any amount of revenge is worth the risk of sending an innocent person to die alone, strapped to a table in a small room.