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The Daily Need

Troy Davis, the death penalty and the toll executions take

Photo: AP Photo/David Zalubowski

Regardless of how one feels about the death penalty, or about the particular case of Troy Davis, there’s something worth remembering amid a frenzy such as this: There are real people involved, not least of all the man who was put to death amid doubts about his guilt.

About once a year or so, a case comes along that jars us from our complacency, reminds us that, as a society, we put people to death. Without making judgments about the efficacy of the death penalty as a deterrent against crime, or about its moral legitimacy as a form of justice, its worth noting that putting someone to death is a weighty thing, and it inevitably takes a profound toll on those involved.

The Troy Davis case was no different. As new evidence emerged over the years that cast doubt on the veracity of the witnesses’ claims — and as seven of the nine witnesses ultimately recanted their testimonies implicating Davis in the 1989 shooting of Officer Mark MacPhail — the jurors who had convicted Davis began to express their regrets.

One quote in particular seems especially powerful. In 2009, as Davis was facing a third planned execution date — the first two had been delayed as part of the lengthy appeals process — one of the jurors in his original trial, Brenda Davis, told CNN that she had changed her mind about Davis’s guilt. “If I knew then what I know now,” Ms. Davis said, “Troy Davis would not be on death row. The verdict would be ‘not guilty.’”

Retributive justice has been at the heart of our legal systems for centuries. One of the earliest formalized sets of laws, the code of Hammurabi, the Babylonian king, set down a draconian system of reciprocal punishment designed not only to deter crime but to chasten harshly those who breached the social contract. The system applied the principle of lex talionis — “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” — and prescribed retaliatory sentences often in excess of the crimes they were designed to punish.

It would be easy, then, to think of the Davis case as an outlier. We have, after all, been doing this for centuries. In 2010 alone, the United States executed 46 death row inmates. But, regardless of the circumstances of the case, or whether there’s any doubt about the guilt of the accused, executions inflict a grave spiritual and psychological toll on those tasked with setting them down. It is, perhaps, worth considering this toll as we debate anew the legitimacy of the death penalty in America.

The Davis case is, in some ways, reminiscent of the last American execution to attract the glare of the international spotlight. In 2010, the state of Utah put a man to death by firing squad, only the third since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. There are, of course, important differences: There were no doubts about the guilt of Ronnie Lee Gardner, who killed a bystander during a 1985 escape attempt from court. Nonetheless, the jurors in Gardner’s case were forced to make a wrenching decision: sentence him to death, or allow the possibility of his eventual release. At the time of Gardner’s sentencing, there was no option for life without parole.

Faced with that choice, the jurors sentenced him to death. But as Gardner’s execution neared, some began to express regret. The death sentence they rendered had haunted them for over two decades, the weight of a man’s life resting on their shoulders. Four of the jurors recanted their death sentences in affidavits obtained by Need to Know. Pauline Davies, who had held out under immense pressure from her fellow jurors by, among other things, locking herself in the bathroom, eventually acquiesced after days of heated debate. In a 2010 affidavit recanting her vote, Davies wrote that she had felt “coerced into voting for death.”

However we feel about the death penalty — and whatever impact this latest case has on our justice system — it’s worth remembering the grave personal cost that accompanies putting someone to death. For some, this cost is prohibitive; for others, it is a necessary burden. In fact, thousands of years of evolution have hardwired us to seek retribution in spite of the pain it causes us. We get an emotional high from inflicting retaliation, psychologists say, otherwise we would never do it — the personal cost is too great.

Colleen Cline, another juror in the Gardner case, gave voice to this private anguish in an interview with Need to Know last year. The pain of sentencing a man to death had remained with her for over two decades. Like Brenda Davis, the juror from the Troy Davis case, Cline was certain the outcome would have been different had the jurors known of the extenuating circumstances (Gardner’s psychological state, his history of physical and parental abuse). “I think we all would have gone for life without parole if that had been an option,” Cline said in an interview days before Gardner’s execution.

For outsiders merely observing a death penalty case, Cline said, it’s impossible to appreciate the weight of the choice confronting the jury. “I don’t think one really appreciates the magnitude of that until they’re actually in a position where that’s a decision that must be made,” Cline said. The magnitude of that decision, she added, stayed with her.

A lawyer for Gardner came knocking on Cline’s door one day, 25 years after the trial, asking her to sign an affidavit recanting her decision. Cline recalled what the lawyer told her. “I’ve been trying to put this behind me for 25 years,” he said. Cline responded, “‘Well, we all have.’”

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  • Kmunrogacia

    For many years I have wanted to become an American Citizen like my Husband, Children and Grandchildren ( I am from the UK) but I cannot bring myself to swear allegiance to a country that commits premeditated murder of the most brutal kind. Please let this come to an end in my lifetime! After the Davis case I have switched all the charitable and political contributions I make to The Innocense Project and others that are attempting to abolish this barbaric practise.

  • Marehd88305

    Society is so broken, I don’t know what can mend it. The heinous actions started when we began Indian residential boarding schools in this country, which was pretty much concurrent with the slave ships.Rev. Kevin Annett says that the ‘sins of the father’ are not ‘visited upon the generations’ unless ‘the generations’ follow that path…what path are we on?

  • Anonymous

    Of the 46 persons murdered by their state “justice” systems in 2010, how many were of African descent? How many were mentally ill, how many were intellectually challenged? How many were innocent?
    I have NO sympathy for ANY of the people who were directly or indirectly responsible for the state-sanctioned, cold-blooded, vengeful  murder of Troy Davis. His blood is on your hands, you are responsible for this miscarriage of “justice”. All Americans, and especially the powers-that-be in the pathetic state of Georgia, should be ashamed, but you are too full of hate, vengeance and stupidity to realize that. Hope you are satisfied, you barbarians.

  • Anonymous

    No matter what one thinks about the death penalty one does have to admit the death process is corrupted.  There are people who get on death row by a certain state for nothing more than political points.  Something else to consider is the fact that innocent people have been on death row.  With that last statement in mind it makes me think whose been innocent that we’ve executed?  Just that alone makes me against it.

  • CFluck

    A system based on restorative justice deals with these costs by preventing them and addressing the reasons for the crime.  Peace as an organizing principle would rule out the death penalty and retributive responses to crime.

  • Anonymous

    There were two executions last week. I, like many others, only care about the one that was celebrity endorsed.

  • Anonymous

    You seem to have NO sympathy for any one executed who is white. There was another man executed last week. I guess your compassion and sympathy only extends to those persons who, by your righteous indignation, dissuades your white guilt

  • Anonymous

    “Society” was not started by the formation of America nor is America the only society to practice barbarism. Where is your rage when Islamic extremists throw acid in the faces of little girls or burn down schools full of children?

  • CS

    I don’t believe that pointing out the obvious racial inequalities present in our justice system as a whole, and death penalty cases in particular, is an attempt to assuage ‘white guilt.’ The other man executed a few hours before Troy Davis, Lawrence Russell Brewer, was white. He committed a horrific murder and it’s hard to feel sorry that he’s dead. But willfully killing anyone, even the worst of humankind, doesn’t accomplish retribution or deterrence, it just continues a cycle. You make a good point above, EverettJames, that we should be equally concerned about every death penalty case. If we were, we’d be able to have an ongoing discussion that would hopefully end this practice, rather than the occasional controversy that fades so quickly after an execution. 

  • Wildbullagow

    I’d love to see you this liberal with people killing your family like it was free.

  • DeborahJ

     Let’s see, EverettJames, where did I state that I only care about non-whites who are murdered by their governments? The death penalty is barbaric, period, and only intellectual inferiors believe that it is a deterrent. It is about revenge and retribution, nothing more, nothing less. The fact that the majority of death row inmates are persons of color, persons with mental illnesses and/or people with lower intelligence levels is just another shameful fact of life in the U.S. You need to start reading comments before you make stupid, uninformed cracks. Oh, and I have no white guilt, homey, I’m black.

  • DeborahJ

    The death penalty is murder, Wildbullagow. An eye for an eye is animalistic, and does nothing to prevent crime. Do some research, get educated and then come back with some thing intelligent to say.

  • DeborahJ

    Dude, really? We’re not talking about Islamic extremists. We’re talking about home-grown, made in the USA barbarians. You’re right about America not being the linchpin of “society”, quite the opposite, America is proving herself to be the downfall of society. Trying to shift the conversation from the domestic terrorists in the US to the easy targets of Islam is weak and pathetic, and so very much the American way. Do you understand why so much of the world looks at the US with disgust, rage and hatred?

  • Guest 101

    I think that if you look at the data unbiasdly you will see that people are executed in numbers relative to the ethnic population concentration in individual states. I’m not saying that a jury of a person’s peers can’t be biased, because they can be, but to inferr that the judicial system is somehow inately rascist is wrong. There is a heavy number of southern states that carry out more executions than others, and the population of african americans just happens to be the majority or close to it in those states. You don’t see black people being executed in Utah. I think there are other underlying factors that are very telling as well. Like the fact that the southern states have very high poverty rates because of employment laws that keep minimum wage down, and people that are forced to live in poverty are more likely to have violent crimes committed against them. There are so many things wrong with the system. I don’t feel the death penalty is ever justified. I also find it interesting that the states where the death penalty is the highest are saturated with right wing conservative christian republicans, who if they were in fact actually living by the teachings of their “savior” would turn the other cheek. That doesn’t mean you let violent offenders wander the street to commit crimes again but you don’t murder them either. The threat of death doesn’t keep people from committing violent crimes, so obviously if punishment is supposed to be a deturrant for crime it doesn’t work. Crime prevention, and rehabilitation should be the focus, not how hard do we throw the book at someone to make an example of them so that no one else will do the same thing again. That kind of thinking is like putting canola oil in someones open can of coke trying to teach them not to put open soda cans in the refridgerator, it just doesn’t make sense.

  • Paul White

    I read all comments above, the anger, guilt and hurt and I find myself in concordance with the thesis of this article which is that state sponsored killings are damaging to all of us – not right or wrong but damaging none the less.

  • Folingo

    Life without autual parole is plenty harsh and cheaper then the death penalty. Any conviction should be for life without parole first then a separate decision for execution. Forcing jurors to decide innocent or execution is torture

  • Moellmck

    Oh the rage is there Everett just as in all cases of cruelty from human to human and to animals. It’s just so heartbreakingly hard to pinpoint all of them all the time!!

  • Dselan

    perhaps the way to end the death penalty is to continously point out the evidence that housing a prisoner for life is so much cheaoer than the death sentence.  People seem to think money is so much more important than humanity.

  • Anonymous

    Of course I understand why much of the world looks at the US with disgust and rage. I've lived a good portion of my life outside the U.S. in Africa and South America. I also know the overwhelming majority of people still wish to come here despite their so called rage. What irks me is the false sense of rage that latte sipping Americans have towards whatever cause-d-celeb  that is marched out before them. My point was not to draw attention away from Americas violence and turn it to Islams violence but to ask you where were you when children had acid thrown in the faces? Where was CNN? Where were all these angry white folks that I saw babbling on about Troy Davis when even greater grotesque violence is being perpetrated elsewhere in the world? Hell, where were they when a man was executed in Texas the same damn day? Why was there no outrage over that? The answer lies in the the hypocrisy of the very same people who say they care. They don't. They care about what they are told to care about. Your assertion that America is somehow the "downfall of society" is ridiculous. Human greed and violence is the downfall of society. Your insistence on blaming America for all the veil in  the world all-the-while enjoying the comforts of America is naive at best and dangerous at worst.


  • Anonymous

    Can’t see how you think I disagree with you that the death penalty is in fact barbaric. It is. All you rhetoric about the “majority” this or the “majority” that is irrelevant and only serves as away to digress from the singularity of purpose. As far as “stupid uninformed cracks”, that coment is more a reflection of you then me. And as far as you not being white? well that just proves that lies are often wishes