I’ve historically maintained a conflicted relationship with Capital punishment. I am vocal about a lot of different issues, and the death penalty is an issue that I am undecided about, knowing the statistics and seeing the wheels of “Justice” turn daily. Not being firm in knowing which side to sit makes me uncomfortable, but I often maintain that I don’t really have a specific opinion on pro- or con- Capital punishment because there is the everlasting internal human struggle of logic versus emotion. As a matter of fact, I got a bad grade in an undergrad Victimology course for not choosing a side; though, I think that my (white) professor was more thrown off by the fact that I was a very socially and politically active Black woman on campus who knew the disparities in sentencing and wrongful convictions primarily of minorities. I’m often expected to be too progressive to have difficulty with such an subject! Moreover, when elaborating on my feelings for the death penalty, I’m reminded of an incident that happened during my adolescence:
I had to be thirteen or fourteen years old. I had always been very intellectually independent, even when my viewpoints were challenged. My thirteen-or-fourteen-year-old-self read our local independent newspaper and noticed a vigil and protest against the death penalty. I expressed to my father that I wanted to go, because I was very proudly against the death penalty. No one has the right to kill anyone; not even the worst of criminals deserve to be killed because they’re human beings. I was firm and proud to be standing in my own opinion, and expressing it to an adult! You couldn’t tell me nothing. And then, along came my father’s rebuttal: if someone came in the house and murdered my entire family, would I want them to die?
It kind of shook me. Of course, my thirteen-or-fourteen-year-old-self couldn’t express a number of important factors to that counterargument, but surely the death penalty is viewed by some as retributive, right? Don’t some crimes committed make people beyond help? Aren’t some people just plain sick?
And then, in college, I met a death row exoneree. He was on death row for 18 years for a crime he had absolutely no connection to. After he was exonerated, all the government could say was “my bad”..he can’t get a job because, even though he has been exonerated, there is a felony conviction on his criminal record. While he, like many others, are assisted by The Innocence Project and other agencies, it is still a very real struggle to maintain living successfully in a system that refuses to assist you, and realizing that you’ve missed 18 years of your life. He was wrongfully incarcerated during his mother’s funeral.
There have been 273 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the US, according to The Innocence Project. Of the 273 exonerees, 166 of them were Black. We can’t bullshit like there has not been a history of racial injustice by our Judicial and Legislative systems. We cannot use our emotional trauma as reason enough to sentence a human being to death because our system is not entirely accurate. We can’t take that due process bullshit as justification enough to kill another human being. We have to be logical. The problem with Capital punishment isn’t entirely the nature of Capital punishment itself; instead, I will suggest that the problem is with our entire Justice (and just-us) system.
You know, Just-us, right? The invisible division in our branches of government that lays out the rules for us — the marginalized people through American history: the people of color, women, non-Christians, the LGBTQQIP community. There have traditionally been exceptions and injustices within our justice system based on our status as, well… non-white-non-male-non-straight persons. Ergo, just-us. I would contend that in the case of Troy Davis, his constitutional rights were violated and as a result, the prosecution had no initial evidence for a bare conviction. Allegedly, his home was searched without proper grounds and his family was threatened by local police agencies. Unlawful search, especially by white officers in the South, is commonly problematic to Blacks and other people of color in the US. The idea that this shooting, investigation, and subsequent conviction, chronologically paralleled the LA riots speaks to the time and climate of the relationship between people of color and law enforcement’s abuse of power. The legal necessity for a conviction in a criminal court in the US is beyond a reasonable doubt; without reliable and consistent witness testimony, the doubt is always reasonable.
The fact that most of the witnesses implicate the same person dissuades me from believing that the wrongful conviction, and impending execution, is completely and solely based on race since the other suspect consistently indicated is a Black man. However, the unlawful investigation and resulting conviction gives us insight to the imbalance of power within the Justice system. Aside, with even the slightest hint of doubt, the death penalty is extreme. Whether or not a person is guilty of a crime, twenty years on death row, counting and ready to die is cruel and unusual. 273 DNA-based exonerations is excessive. The average sentence of those exonerees being 13 years is outrageous. The permanence of the death penalty in an imperfect world (and system) is substantially egregious.
As conflicting as the death penalty can be, we should all be outraged when we hear individual stories. We should be angry that human beings are not sophisticated enough to stray from such a barbaric form of justice. We should be ashamed.
I’d like to declare that I am formally against the death penalty given the uncertain nature of our convictions, the perception of reasonable doubt, and the historical injustice of the so-called Justice system toward marginalized groups. And still, I can’t say with great confidence that if a person murdered my entire family that I would know, with great confidence, which side of the debate I would feel. I do know, for a fact, that the death penalty is far too permanent and lasting a solution to be placed in the hands of people prone to prejudice and human error. Troy Davis is one of many who tip the scale for me as to why the death penalty just will not do. He – and many others – deserve true JUSTICE.