09/23/2011 04:34 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2011

Cowardice Killed Troy Davis

There is one rarely heard argument against the death penalty that deserves a place in the debate: Executions are the coward's way out.

We know that capital cases are exorbitantly expensive, a single case often costing taxpayers millions. Trials, motions, appeals, retrials can take decades, thus delaying or denying "closure" to loved ones and other survivors of homicide. Race and class discrimination guarantee that lopsided numbers of poor people and people of color will wind up on death row while their rich, white counterparts are rarely executed (almost half of all inmates awaiting execution today are black). The underfunded, overloaded public system of indigent defense cannot compete fairly against the resources of a well-financed "dream team." Mistakes (or worse) in crime scene processing, evidence gathering, witness interviews, suspect interrogations, in-the-flesh and photo lineups are all too common. As are the motives and reliability of jailhouse informants, and the inept if not unlawful performance of some prosecutors.

These and other failings of the criminal justice system have resulted in the convictions of innocent people.

Is there anyone who really believes we have not put to death someone in this country who, simply put, did not do it?

This reality, the prospect of executing an innocent person, is enough to cause many who would otherwise support the death penalty to oppose it. (One notable exception is Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia who famously stated, two years ago, in the context of the Troy Davis case, "This court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a court that he is 'actually' innocent." Parse that. Please. It's important.)

Other death penalty abolitionists hold that capital punishment is wrong on religious and/or moral grounds, that it is not a deterrent, that it can cause even more anguish to some families of murder victims, that it is a fundamentally barbaric sentence that should be barred under the Eighth Amendment.

All these arguments carry great weight. They account, severally and in sum, for my opposition to capital punishment.

But that other argument against the death penalty springs to mind after every heart-wrenching, stomach-turning execution of a fellow human being.

I've acknowledged my profound pain when a police officer is killed. I've admitted the special wrath I feel toward cop killers. I've confessed a primeval desire that, on a particular occasion in the mid-eighties, I wanted the at-large murderer of two San Diego police officers to give us reason to take him out.

But it is a coward who takes the life of someone whose threat to society has been contained. Once that killer in San Diego was in cuffs, all weapons were holstered.

I believe that one who commits first-degree murder has forfeited his right to freedom. Putting that individual behind bars for the rest of his life, without possibility of parole, is fitting punishment. Whereas executions foreclose on any possibility of correcting grievous errors.

Errors of the type that were surely at play in the controversial conviction and sentencing of Troy Davis, and which led to his killing at 11:08 Wednesday night.

The list of potential cowards in Mr. Davis's execution is long: the prosecutor who tried the case; the federal judge who in 2010 rejected an appeal by Davis's defense team; the majority of the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles; the Georgia Supreme Court; the Governor of the state of Georgia; the majority of United States Supreme Court Justices, the President of the United States.

Whether possessed of sanctioned authority or a powerful bully pulpit, the exercise of conscience and courage by any one of these principals--those with qualms about the death penalty in general, or the application of it in this particular case--could have made a difference.

Of course, ultimately, it is a collective cowardice that maintains the death penalty.

Sixteen states (one, Michigan, as early as 1846) and the District of Columbia have abolished capital punishment. With polls showing 62 percent support for the death penalty (and a leading candidate for the Republican Party's presidential nomination boasting of his state's topping the nation in executions) don't look for spineless politicians to put an end to the cowardly act of capital punishment.