2006: Clarence Hill, former last-minute reprieve beneficiary 1675: Little John

2011: Troy Davis, doubts aside

September 21st, 2011 Headsman

The reader is likely aware that as of 7 p.m. this evening, Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison local time, a man named Troy Anthony Davis will die by lethal injection — barring some sort of intervention that by this point would rate just this side of the miraculous.

Since Davis already had one of those, an extraordinary 11th-hour Supreme Court intervention the last time he was up for death, you’d have to guess he’s over quota as it is.

The controversial particulars of this case are too voluminously available for this space to hope to contribute much. As Scott Lemieux observes, the affirmative case for Troy Davis’s innocence is not a slam dunk: but the evidence as it exists, of unreliable eyewitness accounts from a nighttime scene, supplied under police pressure and later largely retracted, could today hardly approach the threshold of guilt beyond reasonable doubt. I don’t know if Troy Davis shot Mark MacPhail, and neither do you. Davis dies for it tonight just the same: all the paperwork is in order.

The “demon of error,” Illinois Gov. George Ryan called it, as he emptied that state’s death row. This unsettling matter demands one play bookmaker with a man’s life. Are you as much as 80% sure? Would that be sure enough? Maybe the uncertainties are unusually large here, but at some level this is the calculus for most criminal adjudications, death or otherwise.

“If a case like this doesn’t result in clemency, which is a discretionary process that calls a halt to an execution based on doubt surrounding the integrity of the verdict, then it suggests that clemency as a traditional fail-safe is not adequate,” criminologist James Acker told the Christian Science Monitor. “The Davis case raises doubts about the discretionary clemency process and ultimately raises doubts about whether the legal system can tolerate this potential error in allowing a person to be executed.”

Clemency as an inadequate, dead-letter procedure (Gov. Ryan aside) is familiar to any observer of the American capital punishment scene; Rick Perry thinks he can disdain it all the way to the presidency.

Perry’s state of Texas has something in common with Georgia: the clemency decisions are not directly in the hands of the governor. It’s an interesting arrangement that helps to scatter responsibility for that weightiest of decisions; every actor in the apparatus is in a position to say, “I alone did not have power of life and death.”

Georgia is one of just five states (not including Texas, where the governor has final say and exercises significant behind-the-scenes power over his advisors) where the clemency process is entirely vested in a committee.* The Georgia Governor is a fellow named Nathan Deal, and his autopen will spill much ink in the hours ahead signing form response letters explaining that he doesn’t have anything to do with pardons or clemencies in his state and thanks for writing.

It wasn’t always this way.

A predecessor of Deal’s in that mansion, one with a promising political career ahead, was bayed out of politics for exercising his prerogative to spare Leo Frank because “I cannot stand the constant companionship of an accusing conscience.” The modern office-seeker typically comes with this accusatory module helpfully un-installed, but one can see how there’d be advantages to removing from the office anything to invite experimentation with self-destructive scruples.

The roots of Georgia’s current system go back to the 1930s, when the notoriously corrupt Eurith Rivers held the governorship and used the solemn power of pardons like merchants in the temple — and every bit as lucratively.

The “pardons racket” continued under Rivers’s successor, until a young reformist captured the office and dramatically rewrote the way Georgia did business.

Among those reforms was the progressive concept of rooting out the pardons racket by removing the authority from the governor’s hands. No pardon power, no embarrassing Marc Rich cases. As Gov. Arnall himself explained,

There were those who used to say facetiously, “If you bring the governor a cow, he’ll get you a pardon for your kinfolks, or if you get him a bale of cotton if you do this, or if you get the right lawyer or if you get the right set-up, you can get pardons, pardons, pardons.” So they had gotten a lot of pardons, and the newspapers were after them day in and day out for granting these pardons.

Pardons, pardons, pardons. You can’t get hold of them for a bale of cotton any longer.

These institutions naturally have a life of their own, and what was forward-looking under Georgia’s 1943 constitution seems anything but to Troy Davis’s supporters this day. In the end, the board is still appointed by governors, and it predictably skews towards prosecutors and police — the latter of whom are out for Davis’s blood since Mark MacPhail wore a badge for his day job. It deliberates behind closed doors, and need not record or account for its considerations.

But this is really the lament against the decision itself more so than the process: individual governors are no more bound to broadcast their decision-making process, although some choose to do so. The rules of the game matter, but whatever they might be, it is humans who apply them — human judgment that makes the choices, whether as the first officers on the scene, as jurors, or as a panel of inscrutable bureaucrats with power over life and death.

* Here’s an example of a similar committee in Nebraska granting a pardon, in the relatively less-fraught circumstance of a man 100 years dead.

Part of the Themed Set: Americana.


Update: After a last-second reprieve that extended into a four-hour execution-night drama, the U.S. Supreme Court denied (pdf) Davis’s last appeal. He was executed at 11:08 p.m.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Georgia,History,Lethal Injection,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Ripped from the Headlines,USA,Wrongful Executions

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10 thoughts on “2011: Troy Davis, doubts aside”

  1. Fiz says:

    I am so upset about this. I don’t know what happened, I wasn’t there, but there is too much doubt in this case. I don’t see Georgia stopping it now, but I how I pray and wish they would.

  2. Litta says:

    I do not agree with the execution of Troy Davis. I honestly don’t know who killed the cop, however beyond a reasonable doubt, he is innocent. There is no way that any humane justice system would allow 7 of 9 “eye witnesses” to change their minds, and still put this man into a chair to die. Casey Anthony obviously had something to do with her daughters murder, yet she got off with a settlement. The justice system is too affraid to admit that they were wrong, and doesn’t want to pay this man for all of the years that he has spent behind bars; because the justice system can’t make up their minds.

  3. Blackpower says:

    The government should honestly be ashamed of themselves for this. I find it very funny during his trial he has an all white jury. And also how Cassie Anthony can get away Scott free when it’s obvious…(different story for a different day) but when it’s a black man no one cares! If someone was to get the death penalty they need to be 110% sure that the person is guilty. There is no room or error for flaws because there is someone’s life at stake here. Because once he is dead, there is no bringing him back. I think they should take more time to investigate if that’s what they need to do, but going through with it today is absolutely absurd!! Troy will definitely remain in my prayers and that the government will be defeated!! Smh!

  4. Fiz says:

    It’s only a stay, Meagan, and there’s still no news from SCOTUS.

  5. Meaghan says:

    A stay is better than nothing.

  6. Catherine says:

    SCOTUS upheld the death sentence, Troy Davis was executed by the state of Georgia at 11:08pm EST.

  7. Fiz says:

    I know, Catherine – being from the UK, I sat up till 4.30 a.m UK time with the Headsman, mentally holding hands (he’s from the US, I’m from the UK) and hoping that Georgia would not do this atrocious thing.

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