The story of Troy Davis, a convicted murderer executed in Georgia recently, has featured prominently in the Irish print, broadcast and online media for some time.
This is unsurprising given the very serious questions that were raised about his guilt by those who followed his trial and the wide range of high profile supporters Mr. Davis attracted to his cause as he appealed his original conviction.
Noting that there was no physical evidence to tie him to the crime scene and that several eyewitnesses recanted their earlier testimony, they campaigned in vain for Mr. Davis’s conviction to be set aside and a new trial to be ordered.
The attention this particular case attracted in the Irish media is surprising though in the sense that executions are still carried out in a number of US states on a fairly regular basis. And an examination of the reaction in the Irish media and among the wider public to Mr. Davis’s execution reveals that the various doubts about his guilt and the process that led to his conviction do not alone explain the widespread societal revulsion at his execution.
Two columns side by side in September 24/25th’s Irish Times manifest this revulsion and what underpins it. Donald Clarke, a self-described “bleeding-heart,” writes that “popular will drives the annihilation of condemned citizens” and that President Barack Obama, in his qualified support for capital punishment, establishes a kinship with western European “parties of the far right.”
Breda O’Brien, typically labelled a conservative Catholic commentator and patron of the Iona Institute (the Institute calls for more widespread religious practice and espouses conservative views on social issues), is similarly scathing in her appraisal of Mr. Davis’s execution and the public opinion in the United States that facilitates it.
Ms. O’Brien cites the circumstances of Mr. Davis’s case, the overrepresentation of racial minorities on death row and relatively lax procedural safeguards against the imposition of the ultimate penalty.
Even more compellingly, Ms. O’Brien takes on United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative Catholic like herself, who has argued that “the more Christian a country is, the less likely it is to regard the death penalty as immoral. Abolition has taken its firmest hold in post-Christian Europe.”
In the same vein, Justice Scalia has opined that “for the non-believer . . . to deprive a man of his life is to end his existence.” This, the argument goes, explains why non-believers are more opposed to capital punishment. Ms. O’Brien equally cynically, yet quite presciently, responds: “[E]vidently, in Scalia’s universe, because you despatch the guilty to their maker, judicial killing is no biggie, a view distinctly at odds with his own faith tradition, Catholicism.”
Each columnist – one an atheist and the other a believer, one from the left and the other from the right – was prompted to reflect upon capital punishment by the circumstances of the Troy Davis case, but reaches the same overarching conclusion on the issue.
The death penalty is wrong, regardless of the circumstances. Ms. O’Brien closes her column by observing that “‘you can’t fight murder with murder’, a fact my ten year old is also able to grasp. Unfortunately, the US looks unlikely to grasp it anytime soon.”
Mr. Clarke and Ms. O’Brien’s agreement on the issue, coupled with the general consensus against capital punishment in Ireland, prompted my own reflection. What in the American psyche, belief system and culture engenders a climate where capital punishment is allowed by law in a significant number of states and where some public officials actually measure their success by the number of executions carried out under their watch? What is so appealing about a distinctly Old Testament, “eye for an eye,” primordial meting out of “justice?”
To be sure, in the United States, heinous murders take place on a daily basis and people lose their lives. American society is violent – far more violent than Irish society. The families and friends of those who senselessly and tragically die understandably and justifiably want those who have robbed them of a precious human person to be punished.
But statistics indicate that the death penalty does not have a deterrent effect. It costs a lot of taxpayer money to execute people. Extraordinary advances in forensic science have demonstrated the all too real possibility of executing the innocent. Above everything else, the death penalty does not and cannot bring the victim back.
These factors have combined to lead state legislatures to repeal death penalty statutes in some states. State and federal courts have considered these factors, together with nuanced constitutional arguments and international legal instruments, and struck down death penalty statutes in other states. The trend is away from capital punishment in the United States, yet it persists.
And my question about what makes the death penalty acceptable to so many Americans, including an otherwise progressive president, persists. It is only when, or if, a deeper, collective discussion of the ultimate sanction in the United States occurs and the rather unpleasant truths that this discussion will inevitably unearth are further thrashed out openly and honestly that we are likely to see an end to the practice of capital punishment in sight.
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Back here in Ireland, Americans sometimes get what are all too often ill-informed and accusatory lectures about our country’s record on protecting human rights. In response, we can proudly point to a wide array of forward-thinking laws that vindicate the rights and freedoms of individuals and groups in the United States.
Many of these laws are the envy of advocates around the world – the Americans with Disabilities Act springs immediately to mind – and there is much we can rightly celebrate. That the United States, along with China, Iran and a dwindling group of other countries whose values we generally do not share, still executes people in 2011 is nothing for us to be proud of, however. It’s a disgrace.
*Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney and lecturer now living in Ireland