The long case of death row inmate Troy Davis is coming to a close. His case now stands before the Supreme Court as they deliberate on whether or not he deserves to die for a crime he most likely did not commit. The outcry has been vocal and people are refreshing news sites and checking their Twitter feed to see if Davis is free or if he is dead.
Meanwhile, in Texas, a man named Lawrence Brewer is being executed for the murder of James Byrd Jr.*
There is no outcry for Mr. Brewer because he is most likely guilty whereas Davis’ case hits to the heart of our deepest fears about the death penalty: what if we killed an innocent person?
We already have. In 1976, the death penalty was reinstated. 1,276 men and women have been executed as of September 13, 2011. The odds are slim that every single person executed was guilty of their crime.
But that’s beside the point. Mr. Brewer should not have been executed just as Mr. Davis should not be executed. However, we rally around Mr. Davis because it makes the case that if even one innocent person is executed, then the death penalty should be abolished. But really it just makes the argument, “Please be really, really, really sure someone is guilty before you kill him.”
The death penalty is wrong. Period. The innocence or guilt of the condemned is irrelevant. The death penalty is not a deterrent and it is not how a modern society should behave. A murderer is either too enraged to think about the death penalty or he/she doesn’t care. And if it doesn’t reduce homicides, then it is simply the implementation of an antiquated system of moral justice. The Code of Hammurabi was over 3,700 years ago. Surely, we must have made some progress since then. But clearly, at least in America and any other place that still executes its citizens, we haven’t.
The case of Troy Davis isn’t special unless you believe that some people deserve to die and others don’t and it is up to us to make that call. But if you believe, as I do, that the death penalty is always wrong no matter the guilt or innocence of the condemned, then the case of Troy Davis isn’t horrifying because an innocent man may be put to death. It’s horrifying because whether Troy Davis is executed tonight or not, Lawrence Brewer was and he won’t be the last.
*I feel it’s important to note that Brewer was a white supremacist convicted of dragging Mr. Byrd to death from the back of his pick-up truck. Despite the ugliness of the crime, I feel that Mr. Brewer should have been left to rot in prison for the rest of his days. Executing Brewer doesn’t bring back Mr. Byrd, it won’t stop future hate crimes, and if the only benefit is that we as a society feel justified by Mr. Brewer’s execution, let me remind you that Mr. Brewer felt justified in his slaying of Mr. Byrd. Brewer’s execution may bring comfort to the friends and family of Mr. Byrd but if the purpose of “justice” is only to bring comfort, then our definition of justice is on par with a tub of Häagen-Dazs and a warm bath. The purpose of justice isn’t to serve individuals but to serve society as a whole.
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