It looks as if Troy Davis is going to die tomorrow afternoon.
I don’t say this with satisfaction, or regret. It’s a simple fact.
The reason that his imminent death is likely, is because all of his appeals, including a last minute attempt to persuade the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles to commute his sentence, have failed.
A lot of people are saying that Davis, who is convicted of having murdered a police officer in 1989, is innocent. They’re basing this conclusion on the fact that several of the witnesses who testified against him at his trial in 1991 have recanted.
Now, let’s look at these facts.
A police officer, one who was coming to the aid of a homeless person, was bludgeoned to death.
This happened in 1989, 22 years ago. Let me repeat that: 22 years ago.
Troy Davis was identified by a number of people, including several eyewitnesses (and yes, I am well aware of the unreliability of such testimony, just as I am aware that circumstantial evidence is good evidence….See Debacle, Casey Anthony)
But his trial took place 20 years ago. The memories of those witnesses, two years removed from the crime, were fresh. Two decades later, those same witnesses are now saying they ‘made a mistake’ or that they were lying. And Davis has had those same two decades to file numerous legal challenges to his conviction.
I, like the prosecuting attorney, wonder why we should believe the recanting witnesses now. Why, twenty years after the fact, does their testimony have more weight than it did a few short years after the crime was committed? They are clearly lying…but were they lying then, or now? Can they be charged with perjury (or have they cunningly waited long enough to outlast the statute of limitations on their crimes?)
Most importantly, does this amount to reasonable doubt?
I understand that some people feel we should have something approaching abslolute certainty before we execute someone. And while a long list of legal scholars believe that this case is far from certain, it's reasonable to believe that even if DNA evidence linked Davis uncontrovertibly to the crime, they would still oppose execution. On principle.
That's because some people who are against the death penalty, including the Pope, never think that execution is justified. Others, like Barry Scheck, think that until you know someone is truly guilty, you can never push that plunger or pull that lever. But their quest for certainty is impossible in a world where humans are fallible creatures. Does that mean we can never execute anyone, even after they've had 20 years to prove their innocence to several different panels of judges and juries?
I have a feeling that the answer, even for this group, is a resounding 'yes!'
Well, I know one thing. Two decades may not have been enough for Troy Davis to prove his innocence. But it is far too long a wait for a murdered police officer’s family to obtain justice.