Over the last eight years, as the legislative and executive branches of the federal government have been melting down, I’ve always felt like we could rely on the courts to be the last bastion of freedom and justice.
I’m not sure that I can say that now.
Earlier this week, the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to hear the case of Troy Davis of Georgia. In 1991, Davis was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1989 shooting death of Savannah police officer Mark McPhail.
No physical evidence linked Davis to the crime. No DNA. No murder weapon. No blood. Nothing. He was convicted on the testimony of nine witnesses. Seven of those nine witnesses have since recanted, and some of them have said that they were coerced into testifying against Davis. Of the two who have not recanted, one is the other person suspected of killing Officer McPhail, and the other could not initially identify Davis as the shooter.
And yet SCOTUS won’t even give him a hearing. All of those people who tell us that the appeals process will catch the innocent people on death row should shut their damn mouths.
The Star Ledger of Newark called the plight of Troy Davis “a terrible injustice“:
Killing him in the face of evidence that he may be innocent is unacceptable for a civilized society. Even proponents of the death penalty should demand that no one be executed if there is a chance he is innocent.
Andrew Cohen, a legal analyst for CBS News, says that the anti-appeals movement has reached its “gruesome but inevitable conclusion“:
When Davis’ appeal on these issues made it to the Georgia Supreme Court the judges there denied him any relief and declared in a 4-3 vote that there must be “no doubt of any kind” but that the trial testimony was of the “purest fabrication” in order to warrant interceding on Davis’ behalf. Got that? It takes only the absence of “reasonable doubt” to convict someone of murder but in Georgia to properly investigate a condemned man’s strong claim of innocence judges have to have “no doubt” at the outset of the inquiry that the inquiry will prove his innocence. How, one dissenting Georgia justice asked, can anyone ever meet such a standard?
It’s a game that Davis can’t win; and that’s precisely how leaders of the anti-appeal movement have wanted it.
Having lost in Georgia, and at the lower federal court level, the defense then asked the United States Supreme Court to declare that the State violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment when it executes an innocent man (or doesn’t even hold a full hearing on his strong claims of innocence). At a minimum, the defense believed, the Justices would look closely at the stringent, new “pure fabrication” rule the Georgia High Court came up with in the Davis appeal.
But it isn’t going to happen. The same Supreme Court in Washington, which delayed Davis’ execution last month, announced on Tuesday that it would not, after all, take the case on its merits. This virtually guarantees that Davis will be executed despite the grave doubts about his guilt. There will be no evaluation of the Eighth Amendment in these circumstances; no considered review of the new Georgia rule; no ardent discussion between Justices Scalia and Stevens about when, if ever, a defendant like Davis can ever get that meaningful new look from the courts.
This isn’t just a Georgia problem. Here in Pennsylvania, six people have been exonerated after being sentenced to death. Nick Yarris lived on PA’s death row for 21 years for a crime he didn’t commit. And it wasn’t the appeals process that saved him. It was only the existence of DNA that stopped the commonwealth from executing an innocent man.
With 221 people on PA’s death row, there’s no telling how many more innocent people are awaiting execution in here.
Troy Davis is probably going to die. His newest death warrant has been signed, and he can be executed sometime between October 27 and November 3. The ultimate irony is that this overzealous, blood-thirsty pursuit of death will ultimately be the undoing of capital punishment in the United States.
UPDATE: 9:45am: Amnesty International USA has numerous actions that you can take to raise awareness of the case of Troy Davis.
Andy in Harrisburg