In the immediate wake of the execution of Troy Davis in Georgia last week, I got into a rather unpleasant spitting contest with certain pro-death penalty advocates and fringe conservative media performers (some of whom I had never heard of right up to the moment they spit on me). I wanted to take the opportunity to address some of what came out of the emotional tirade triggered by Davis' death.
First, the notion that those who argue against the death penalty are attempting to "shield a cop killer" or are, to any degree, indifferent to the suffering of families like the McPhails is unfair, outrageous and among the clearest signs of the dangers presented (Alan Berg) by certain ultra conservative pundits in this country who can only function by living in a world devoid of fact.
I know of no one, not one normal individual that you will meet, who does not want the murderer of a police officer to be captured, tried and, if convicted, punished to the fullest extent of the law. However, a punishment that does not extend to killing the convicted. And, as has been stated by anti-death penalty advocates ad infinitum, this has little to do with opposition to any "eye for an eye" sentiments. It has to do specifically with the misapplication of the death penalty in terms of race, in terms of the potency of court-appointed counsel and in terms of the admission of DNA evidence in cases where tragically slipshod work by police and prosecutors is undone by modern technology. The embarrassing discovery of which then carries very damaging consequences for those at fault. If you don't believe that there is a good deal of petty politics involved in the life and death arena of capital punishment, think again.
I am not Mike Farrell, a great and tireless advocate against the death penalty whose work with Death Penalty Focus out in California has made him a personal hero of mine. The advocacy work I have undertaken over the past several years has not included an overwhelming amount of commitment to opposing capital punishment. In the past, I joined a number of artists and performers who supported a new trial for Mumia Abu Jamal. That position came with an equivalent amount of condemnation and vitriol similar to the Davis Case. Again, involving a police officer. Not one person I worked with back then said Mumia was innocent. They said hey weren't sure. And, therefore, believed he did not deserve to die.
All human beings are capable of the darkest and most hate-fueled emotions. And sometimes, it feels good. It feels right. Here in New York, to follow the home invasion/murder trial of the Petit family in Cheshire, Connecticut, is to make one pine for a day when the death penalty could be rightfully applied. To hear the testimony, to learn of what happened to this mother and her two young children, is to die a little inside. To read of the smug demeanor of Joshua Komisarjevsky, the defendant currently on trial, and of his Manson manque posturing and utter humanistic bankruptcy is to make one want to throw the switch on this guy personally. And with the deepest sense of satisfaction and clearest of consciences.
But for every Joshua Komisarjevsky, there were a number of men who sat on death row, poised to die by the hands of the state (that's you and me) who were freed by groups like the Innocence Project. According to the Innocence Project website, DNA testing exonerated defendants in nearly equal proportion to the confirmation of prosecution results: 43% vs 42%. As the result, innocent men are assumed to have avoided the ultimate penalty.
Supporters of the death penalty often seem to me like the opposite side of a coin. Where they contend that death penalty opponents are soft on crime and coddle the murderers of police officers, their opposites see them as those supporting a system that they largely have faith in, yet if a few innocent convicts get put to death?... well... nothing's perfect. I'll make a deal with you. You don't imply that I'm indifferent to the murder of a police officer and I won't imply that you're willing to kill innocent men by way of a racially tainted legal system.
Besides, it's justice we're after. So, if you take away the death penalty, there's justice all around. Because life in prison without parole is the worst possible sentence. Have you ever visited a prison? Ever been escorted around and spoken to inmates about what goes on there? How they feel? I have.
The death penalty costs us a lot of money. (Everyone involved with the issue knows the statistics and dollar figures.) The death penalty costs us more money that it costs to house an inmate for life. We don't want to kill innocent people. And we don't need to kill the guilty ones either.
Prison itself is the death penalty. In the slowest of slow motion.