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Capital punishment

Daniel Azic | Friday, September 23, 2011

Troy Davis’ execution on Wednesday, Sept. 21, brought the debate on capital punishment back to the forefront of legal issues, as people around the world protested against the execution of a man they believed to be innocent.

In 1989, Davis was convicted of murdering Mark MacPhail, an undercover police officer, when MacPhail was breaking up a fight that arose in a Burger King parking lot. During Davis’ 1991 trial, several witnesses testified that he was the shooter. Davis was convicted of murder and was sentenced to death.

However, after the trial, seven of the nine witnesses recanted or contradicted their original testimony. A number of the witnesses also stated in sworn affidavits that police had coerced them into testifying against Davis.

One of the other two witnesses was Sylvester Coles. Coles was the primary alternate suspect in the case. This brings into question the sincerity of Coles’ testimony. Counting Coles, reasonable doubt remains amongst eight out of the nine witnesses. In addition to this, nine individuals have signed affidavits implicating Coles as the murderer. In 2010, the final court hearing for the case was upheld and an appeal to the Supreme Court was rejected.

Nearly one million people signed petitions urging the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to moderate the severity of Davis’ punishment. Despite this wave of support, the petition was denied.

Davis’ case is a perfect example of the faults in our system of capital punishment. Although Davis was not able to prove his innocence in his appeals, he was able to cast doubt and uncertainty onto his conviction. This uncertainty put Georgia’s justice system in risk of making an irreversible mistake, as more evidence could arise in the future. Between 1973 and 2005, 123 people in 25 states were released from death row due to the emergence of new evidence proving their innocence. Although this is only a small percentage of the number of people who have been on death row, it still highlights the fact that our lengthy system of appeals is not foolproof. If evidence proving Davis’ innocence does emerge in the coming years, the justice system would have made a monumental mistake and public confidence in them would weaken.

And here lies the main problem I, and so many others, have with the death penalty. Why risk the chance of killing an innocent man when you could keep him locked up in prison for the rest of his life?

Many argue that it is not cost effective, however, that argument has proven to be on loose grounds given the high costs of appeal cases. For example, Urban Institute reports that in Maryland, death penalty cases cost three times more than non-death penalty cases at around $3 million for a single case.

Others argue that the death penalty deters murdering. Yet, over 65 percent of the world’s countries have abolished the death penalty. It seems odd that proven deterrent is being abolished more and more across the globe. Such a developed nation as the United States should not continue to practice such an archaic law.

Although Davis’ case is one of grief and sorrow, it is significant in increasing awareness of and opposition toward our capital punishment system. Hopefully the millions of people who have been disturbed by Davis’ execution will act on their grief and push legislation to make a change.

Contact Daniel Azic at dazic@nd.edu

The views expressed in the Inside Column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.