Guest Post: How Much Doubt?
How Much Doubt?
Stuck working late in the office last night, I found myself compulsively reloading the Atlanta Journal-Constitution page chronicling the minute-by-minute developments in the Troy Davis proceedings.
For those of you not familiar, Troy Davis was found guilty of murdering an off-duty police officer in Savannah and sentenced to death. Since then, a majority of witnesses have recanted their testimony, including one who testified that Davis had confessed to him. Multiple problems with the police investigation, including police coercion and a lack of physical evidence, as well as Davis’ defense, have been uncovered. At least one juror has said he would have voted against conviction. Even former Texas judge and FBI Chief under Reagan, Bush, and Clinton, William Sessions, called for a stay of Davis’ execution.
Despite these developments, Davis was not given any reprieve, as the Georgia court hearing his case required not that he demonstrate that there was reasonable doubt in the State’s original case, but rather that he clearly establish his own innocence. The court found the recantations and other exculpatory evidence unequal to this task, and the various appellate courts eventually upheld that determination.
Last night, as Davis’ lawyers tried unsuccessfully to avoid Davis’ 4th scheduled execution, I had a sinking feeling, and it was one that only deepened with the inevitable news that Davis had been executed after the U.S. Supreme Court denied his last minute plea.
Without much time to dwell on it last night, two pieces this morning brought a little more clarity to my feelings of angst. First was a little rant on the legal blog Above the Law. By far the more polemic of the two, it calls attention to the fact that people are getting lost in the question of Davis’ guilt or innocence, and not in the fact that execution is simply a form of state- and society-condoned murder. It certainly jived with my own stance on the death penalty (and who doesn’t love positive-reinforcement?). The second, a piece on Slate, took a more academic approach, asking to what extent we’re willing to sacrifice the certainty of knowing we’ve reached the correct verdict (in this case, convicting the right individual) for the goal of providing finality to the judgment and closure to the victim(s). How much doubt is too much? How much error — and there is no denying that errors occur — is acceptable?
Regardless of your stance on the acceptability of capital punishment in theory, are cases like Davis’ (or Cameron Todd Willingham’s) ever enough to dissuade you in practice?
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