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No Graver Injustice

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Sometimes I am appalled at the roadblocks that courts set up in the way of justice. Ironic, isn’t it?

The NY Times has the story today of Troy A. Davis, a 38-year-old man who has been on Georgia’s death row for 17 years. Mr. Davis was convicted of shooting a police officer who had come to break up a scuffle outside an Atlanta nightclub. There was no physical evidence tying him to the shooting. He admits to being at the scene but claims that he turned and ran as soon as someone threatened to shoot. At his trial, prosecutors, according to the Times, “relied heavily on the testimony of nine eyewitnesses who took the stand against Mr. Davis.” But in the years since his trial, seven of the nine witnesses have recanted or changed their stories, admitting that they were (again, per the Times) “harassed and pressed by investigators to lie under oath.”

Mr. Davis has exhausted his appeals. The Supreme Court last week refused to hear his case. And because of a recent (1996) law “intended to streamline the legal process in death penalty cases, courts have ruled it is too late in the appeals process to introduce new evidence and, so far, have refused to hear it.” Why streamlining the path to death is a good idea totally escapes me. But beyond that, the existence of a law barring evidence that could exonerate a man less than one week from his execution seems both barbaric and blindingly stupid. Sure, in the absence of such a law, some people who are guilty of the crimes for which they were convicted would abuse the system and seek to submit unimportant evidence up to the last minute. But to me this seems a small price in efficiency to pay in order to ensure we don’t put innocent people to death. (As you may have read before, I don’t believe in capital punishment to begin with. But within the framework we now have, this law seems particularly cruel.)

Yet Mr. Davis remains on death row, and his death warrant (pdf) has been signed. The only way he will escape execution (to be carried out between July 17 and July 25) is if the Goergia Board of Pardons and Paroles grants clemency. Which – predictably – seems highly unlikely, particularly given that the boar has commuted only 8 sentences since 1973, the last more than three years ago. And this in a state that has less concern than most states about the possibility of executing the innocent: Georgia is one of only two states that does not guarantee that condemned prisoners will have legal representation after they have exhausted direct appeals (e.g. for clemency hearings, etc.).

At root, whether or not Mr. Davis is innocent (which there is ample evidence to suggest he is, including the fact that one of the people to testify against him is the person others have fingered as the shooter), is not important. The fact that our justice system would set any roadblocks in the way of truth-seeking, particularly in the context of capital punishment, is just beyond me. Streamlining should not come at this cost.

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