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Professor criticizes execution

John Cameron | Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The State of Georgia executed Troy Davis, convicted of the 1991 murder of off-duty police officer Mark MacPhail, Wednesday. Controversy surrounded the case as many claimed changes in witness testimony warranted a stay of execution.

Rick Garnett, professor of law and associate dean at the Notre Dame Law School, said the execution highlighted the American courts’ inability to properly handle new evidence in cases after a conviction has been reached.

“The publicity [Davis’] case received had the useful effect of reminding us that it is very difficult for any criminal justice system — even one that has as many safeguards as ours does — to deal with evidence that is discovered, or that changes, after a person is convicted and sentenced,” Garnett said.

Garnett added that if the courts fail to aptly respond to changes in evidence or testimony after conviction, the parole process should be improved in order to do so.

“The Davis case should, among other things, underscore the importance of the clemency and pardons processes, which do not function well in most places,” he said. “[The processes] could provide a better way for responding carefully to new evidence and to cases where substantial doubts have been raised about factual guilt.”

Outside of a debate over the evidence used in the case or the actual guilt of the accused, Davis’ execution shines light on the greater debate about the existence of the death penalty in the United States.

Garnett, who previously worked with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps on criminal justice reform, has handled capital cases in private practice, as well as authored academic and popular works on capital punishment, and personally opposes the death penalty.

Regardless, Garnett said he respects those on the other side of the debate.

“Responsible and reasonable people disagree about the morality and utility of capital punishment. My view is that we should abandon the death penalty,” he said. “At the end of the day, we have to confront the question whether it is consistent with our bedrock commitment to human dignity to impose the death penalty even on people who are clearly guilty of serious crimes.”

Despite his criticism of the Davis execution, Garnett did not give much credence to claims of corruption or discrimination causing the condemnation of an innocent man.

“We should not overstate the argument,” he said. “We should not assert too confidently, as some are doing, that Mr. Davis was actually innocent, or rush to blame his execution on racism or unfeeling officials.”

Garnett said the justice system cannot be expected to be free of error, but should always be improving.

“Our criminal justice process is not perfect ⎯ no process can be. And, despite our many safeguards, we cannot eliminate entirely the risk, and the reality, of errors,” he said. “At the same time, we should never stop thinking critically about criminal justice.”

Garnett said even though the controversy surrounding the Davis case will eventually fade, citizens and politicians should remain focused on bettering the system.

“The news cycle will move on from Mr. Davis’s case,” he said, “but we should not move on from the task of improving, and making more fair and accurate, our law enforcement and punishment processes.”