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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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