09/23/2011 12:10 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2011

Troy Davis' Truth and Our Justice System

Late Wednesday night, a man who may have been innocent was executed in Jackson, Georgia. Troy Davis had been convicted of the 1989 killing of an off-duty police officer. Following the dismissal of a retrial hearing and a 3-2 vote by the Georgia Parole Board denying him clemency, Davis had exhausted all legal options. His conviction was based on no hard evidence: prosecutors say bullet shell casings found at the scene of the crime were linked to an earlier shooting for which Troy Davis was convicted. Yet the murder weapon was never found, making any direct connection between the shell casings and Troy Davis impossible. The rest of Davis' conviction consists of nine troubling eyewitness accounts. Seven of those eyewitnesses have recanted their testimonies; some of them say they only testified in the first place because of police intimidation and in hopes that they would evade punishment for their own problems with the law. A number of witnesses who identified Davis as the shooter were shown pictures of him and told he was a suspect before they identified him out of what is supposed to be a random collection of photographs.

So Troy Davis was probably innocent of the crime for which he died Wednesday night, though now we can never know. While a host of legal experts from both sides of the political spectrum argued that the lack of physical evidence along with the witness recantations were more than adequate grounds for a retrial, a federal judge overseeing Davis' appeal for a retrial decided the defense attorneys needed to provide evidence of innocence in order to receive a retrial.

In the end, the federal judge, William T. Moore Jr., did acknowledge that the state's case "may not be ironclad" but rejected the appeal for a retrial, on the grounds that Davis' attorneys had not presented a "truly persuasive showing of innocence." Not only is this standard of "innocence as grounds for a retrial" bizarrely redundant (since it appears to constitute almost all the trappings of a retrial anyway), it also turns on its head the fundamental tenet of criminal law, "presumed innocent until proven guilty." As much as this legal standard is intended to protect the judgment of jurors, it also enables the criminal justice system to bury its own mistakes, as a recent New York Times' article pointed out. In the case of Troy Davis, this standard has now buried the lack of physical evidence, witness recantations, and connected allegations of police intimidation.

The law must be changed to prevent such a legal and moral travesty from happening again. The state of Georgia's judicial system and the federal judicial system have obfuscated truth under the banner of justice. Throughout the legal process leading up to Troy Davis' execution, the legal establishment has hidden behind the letter of the law; they must believe that the appearance of judicial inviolability and the appearance of procedural correctness are greater values than actual truth or justice, let alone the due process of law or the possible innocence of a man whose life hangs in the balance.

Opting for self-denial and avoiding embarrassment became more important than the preservation of a man's life. In other words, the legal authorities who refused to seek access to the reality behind the conviction of Troy Davis chose each other, chose the judicial system, over truth and justice. This was a moral crossroads. Perhaps, if these authorities consider the human dimension of their actions, their self-righteousness will pierce them to the core.

A representative of Amnesty International described the Davis' execution as "the best argument for abolishing the death penalty." I agree. When the mother of Mark MacPhail, the slain police officer, said that she was anticipating "all the feelings of relief and peace I've been waiting for all these years" she captured what is morally wrong with the death penalty: it is not about attaining justice, it is about the desire for revenge. As a people, it is time to grow out of the sanctimonious morality that thinks "only blood pays for blood." That must be replaced with a new morality, that knows whether blood is spilled by a killer or by the state, it can never be put back. This new morality must know that time and distance alone can sincerely assuage the pain of losing a loved one. It will know that the only answer to the whole world of violence and anger and grief has always been more democracy, more compassion, more peace.

Shortly after Troy Davis' execution Wednesday night, Mark MacPhail's widow said "I will grieve for the Davis family because now they're going to understand our pain and our hurt." She was more right than she knew, for now two men, rather than one, have wrongfully lost their lives.