Troy Davis faces death but O.J. Simpson went free: The death of reasonable doubt?

Law is a human construct. Mistakes can be made. Murderers can go free. The innocent can land on death row.

Troy Davis is an American death row inmate convicted of the murder of police officer Mark McPhail in 1991. Complaints against his placement on death row are more nuanced than general complaints against the inhuman and degrading nature of the death penalty. These complaints go to the root of a crucial element of the rule of law, namely the requirement that the prosecution must prove its case beyond reasonable doubt in order to sustain a conviction. Several features of this case cast not just reasonable, but substantial doubt on the guilt of Davis. Since 1996, seven of the nine prosecution witnesses who testified leading to his conviction changed all or part of their trial testimony. Dorothy Ferrell, for example, stated in a 2000 affidavit that she felt under pressure from police to identify Davis as the shooter because she was on parole for a shoplifting conviction. In a 2002 affidavit, Darrell Collins wrote that the police had scared him into falsely testifying by threatening to charge him as an accessory to the crime, and alleged that he had not seen Davis do anything to Young. Antoine Williams, Larry Young and Monty Holmes also stated in affidavits that strong-arm police tactics had coerced their earlier testimony implicating Davis. In addition, three witnesses signed affidavits stating that Redd Coles had confessed to the murder to them. The State of Georgia argued that the evidence should have been introduced earlier. Davis’s petition was denied in May 2004; the judge stated in an opinion that the “submitted affidavits are insufficient to raise doubts as to the constitutionality of the result at trial, there is no danger of a miscarriage of justice in declining to consider the claim.” He also rejected other defence contentions about unfair jury selection, ineffective defence counsel and prosecutorial misconduct.

The difficulties with the court’s approach ought to be immediately apparent. Are such fatal flaws not sufficient to put the world on notice and remind humanity that the sanctity of life is the most fundamental of human rights? Even for those who support the death penalty: it is one thing to execute a genocidaire pursuant to a champagne-quality fair trial (yet even the most heinous war criminals facing trial in The Hague are never sentenced to capital punishment); it is quite another to execute someone convicted on the basis of admittedly false evidence. Errors such as these magnify the rallying cry that the procedure ought to be abolished completely in order to prevent its abuse. The impending execution of Troy Davis has cast the death penalty debate in the US back into the limelight. Although carrying the general shape of a liberal democracy, the US is out of step with other progressive nations in its approach to capital punishment. The US joins states such as Somalia, Iran, North Korea and Zimbabwe in its retention of the practise. The most important criticism of the death penalty is that it may lead to miscarriages of justice through the wrongful execution of innocent defendants. Some claim that as many as 39 executions have been carried out in the US in the face of compelling evidence of innocence or serious doubt about guilt. For this reason, it is preferable to set a man free when there is anything less than certainty as to his guilt.

This remains the legacy of the O.J. Simpson trial: in the face of reasonable doubt, grant a man his freedom, for death is unlike a switch that can be turned off and then on again. If for this reason alone, Troy Davis deserved to live.


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