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Mary Mapes


We Are All Eyewitnesses

Posted: 09/21/11 05:55 PM ET

As I write this, Troy Davis is just a few hours away from his death.

By the time you read this, he may well be gone. In just a few weeks, I fear his case, the profound problems with it and the wrong-headed rush to his execution will be fast-fading memories, as well.

At least that's the way it always happens here in Texas, where citizens like me -- like it or not -- live with death on a regular basis.

In fact, we are killing someone tonight. We often are.

About the same time Troy Davis dies in Georgia, Lawrence Russell Brewer will be led to the Texas death chamber, home of the world's busiest gurney -- prayed over, poisoned and poured into a body bag.

There is no outcry about the Brewer execution, unlike the Troy Davis case, even from people who traditionally oppose the death penalty. Governor Rick Perry received no pleas for mercy on Brewer's behalf.

Jimmy Carter hasn't said a word.

There hasn't been a peep from the Pope.

The silence seems richly deserved. Brewer was convicted in a horrifying case, the 1999 racist dragging death of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas. I covered the trial and the unremittingly cruel details of the crime were beyond imagining. Byrd was killed by three yahoos simply for the fun of it, simply because he was black, simply because they were drunk, simply because.

Now Brewer, who is unapologetic, unsympathetic, unblinkingly stupid, hateful and vile will be put to death for the same reason -- simply because.

There is no way to equate these two cases and these two men, except in the most obvious way.


We all, in the form of our flawed and illogical legal system, have chosen to kill both of them.

And as long as we insist on killing the Brewers of the world, we will keep screwing up and killing the Troy Davises, the Gary Grahams, the Karla Faye Tuckers, the Cameron Todd Willinghams and every other condemned inmate who suffered at the hands of bad science, bad police or prosecutors, bad eyewitness testimony, bad attorneys or bad luck.

Our system, too often, is as fundamentally unfair as we are -- as cruel as any one person can be, as riddled with hypocrisy, confusion and mistakes as any other human endeavor.

Tonight, as all eyes are on Georgia, as prayers are delivered and hopes are dashed, we should resolve to finally, finally do something about our addiction to execution.

If we believe in civil rights, we should abolish the death penalty because it invariably takes the lives of a disproportionate number of minorities.

If we believe in helping the poor, we should abolish the death penalty because there never have been and never will be rich folks on death row.

If we believe in human rights, we should stop dripping toxins into living human beings and carefully recording what happens next.

If we care about people with crippling personal issues, we should stop killing people who are schizophrenics, drug addicts, alcoholics or mentally disabled.

I was once interviewing the overworked chaplain at Texas's death row when a naive out of state reporter asked what the chaplain would do if "they led someone into the death chamber and inmate was clearly mentally disabled or mentally ill." He answered bluntly, "Well, dear, that happens all the time."

We are once again at a new moment in the death penalty debate when the lines are drawn so clearly that even Blind Justice can see them.

A recent GOP debate audience cheered the number of executions that Rick Perry, Texas governor and preening presidential candidate, has personally overseen. Though it should be noted, he has never bothered to witness one. He has always had better things to do, I guess, than actually watch the disturbing details of his version of justice carried out.

The Tea Party audience that whooped at Perry's world-class execution scorecard (234 that night, 236 after tonight) never asked any questions about the cases or the crimes -- the process or the police work, the makeup of the jury or the system of justice that led to those convictions.

They don't care why or how the executions happened, only that these killings made them feel better, stronger, braver.

They were just hooting and hollering exultantly over the body count.

Which, of course, makes no sense. This is the same crowd that doesn't trust government involvement in anything from HPV vaccines to safe hamburgers. Killing people? That's apparently another story.

Tonight, when two bodies are carried out of two death rows, when the hearses drive past the two crowds in Georgia and Texas -- one mourning, the other probably celebrating -- we should remember that justice is just that.

Just us.

Once again, we have all been eyewitnesses to a questionable execution.

Isn't it time we did something about it?