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Troy Davis' Execution Exposes the Justice System's Ugly Face

Posted: 09/27/11 04:05 PM ET

The state-sponsored murder of Troy Davis captured the world's attention as a perfect storm of what's wrong with the American (in)justice system. No murder weapon, no DNA and no credible witnesses led the average person to have far "too much doubt" about Davis' guilt. The same couldn't be said, however, for any of the officials who had any power to stop the execution before it happened. But while this case is being heralded as the latest rallying cry for death penalty abolitionists, it goes far deeper than that.

As Davis was granted a last minute reprieve in the seconds before his scheduled execution at 7 p.m. EST on this past Wednesday night, tears flowed and voices were raised in hopes this would signal the end of Davis' nightmare or at least another opportunity to prove his innocence. But that wouldn't be the case as he was killed just four hours later when the Supreme Court denied his final request for a stay.

Troy Davis is one man in a long list of people whose rights, and ultimately lives, were cast aside in the name of this broken justice system. However, few cases have reached this level of coverage in recent years because frankly, it's easy to look past an injustice when it doesn't affect you or the people in your immediate circle. But as the state of Georgia pressed to execute Troy, through the appeals process and four different execution dates, it became increasingly difficult to look away and pretend that a catastrophic failure of the justice system wasn't impending.

Davis had been saved before, having received a stay from the Georgia state Parole Board in 2007 and one from the United States Supreme Court just 90 minutes before his 2008 scheduled execution. These acts alone suggest there was doubt of Davis' guilt, even from the judiciary and board that would later fail to save him. Though three members of the state parole board had been replaced since 2007, that board promised not to move forward with the execution unless there was "no doubt as to the guilt of the accused," an idea that must have left with the three former members. The parole board is not governed by the same rules as a trial or appeals court. To say that they would be overstepping their bounds by granting clemency after a court had established guilt is laughable -- that's precisely why clemency exists.

At trial, guilt must be proven to the jury. This guilt must be "beyond a reasonable doubt." When Davis was convicted twenty-two years ago, the jury was convinced. But a few decades later, after 7 out of 9 key witnesses recanted and questions concerning ballistic evidence were raised, even that originally doubtless jury began having second thoughts.

It's difficult for even people who consider themselves to be advocates of the death penalty to say they would approve of the execution of an innocent man. And where there is any shred of doubt, the potential for innocence is too great to ignore. But this case goes beyond the death penalty -- it delves into flawed eyewitness testimony (present in about 75% of DNA exoneration cases), the politicization of the courts (because who wants to look "soft" on crime), and the glaring racial disparities of the system as a whole.

The bottom line is, Troy Davis wouldn't have been on death row if the victim in the case was another young black male, as the death penalty is not often sought in cases of black on black violence. And this is particularly true had the victim not been a police officer, because face it -- in America, some lives are simply more treasured than others. How else can you explain research that shows murderers convicted of killing whites are three times more likely to be sentenced to death than in cases where the victim is black, and four times more likely in cases where the victim is Hispanic? Would the outcome have been similarly different if Troy were of another race? Arguably so -- a study from the Death Penalty Information Center showed that your odds of being sentenced to death increased by 38% if you were African American.

There were many opportunities along the way, countless really, in the past 22 years where an individual such as a judge or prosecutor, or a group, like the parole board, could have taken a stand and said there was simply too much doubt in Davis' case. But time and time again, officials seemed to duck actual justice in pursuit of an irrational tough-on-crime stance and out of fear that any "soft" appearance could damage their political clout.

There were throngs of state police in riot gear outside the prison on the night of Troy Davis' execution. They were contrasted with peaceful supporters holding candles. This mental image, of shielded and armed government agents facing down citizens praying and chanting for the life of another human being, is one that will be etched in my memory forever, symbolizing the growing rift between the people and their government, the powers that be and the general public, and between right and wrong. While the case has garnered unparalleled attention and completely justified outrage, one can only hope this energy doesn't fade -- that somehow Troy Davis' fighting spirit will live on in the pursuit of true justice and a balanced system designed to serve the people with at least some semblance of integrity.