Framing capital punishment

The execution of Troy Davis, a convicted murderer who proclaimed his innocence to the moment of his death, gave us a window on the practice of the death penalty in the United States.  But Davis was not the only person executed yesterday.

The state of Texas killed Lawrence Russell Brewer, a white supremacist convicted of killing a black man by chaining him to the back of his car and dragging him along a bumpy road.  Brewer didn’t make a statement before his execution, but reporters noticed a tear at the edge of one eye.  Brewer’s execution was in the news, largely as contrast to that of Davis, but the anti-death penalty movement did not trumpet the disturbing facts of his crime.

Advocacy groups pick their examples to dramatize the claims they want to make.  (See our discussion of poster children for the DREAM Act.)  Troy Davis, a black man convicted of murdering a white police officer, Mark MacPhail, helped the anti-death penalty movement make many points sharply.

There was no physical evidence in Davis’s case, and all but two of the non-police eyewitnesses from the trial recanted their testimony, reporting that they were pressured to implicate Davis.  Nine people have sworn affidavits that one of those who did not recant,  Sylvester Coles, was in fact responsible for the murder.

Davis’s case helps advocates raise issues of wrongful conviction, procedural fairness, and race–all in addition to general concerns about the death penalty.

Troy Davis won support from those who oppose the death penalty in general, like Amnesty International and Pope Benedict XVI, but also from those who generally support the death penalty, including former FBI Director William Sessions. The facts in the Davis case were so egregious that one didn’t have to oppose the death penalty to oppose his execution.

The Davis case became a focus for organizing against the death penalty, and groups protested and held vigils, while advocates explored every route for redress offered by the legal system.  They tried to stop the execution, organizing around the slogan, “too much doubt,” but–without doubt–many activists at the core of the campaign would oppose the death penalty in any case.

The advocacy point is that advocates for abolishing the death penalty could build a broader coalition with Davis’s case than with most of the people who are executed each year.  (Indeed, there are likely some people who generally oppose the death penalty prepared to make an exception in Brewer’s case.)

There is a moral case to be made against the death penalty, one that has never commanded a majority of public support in the United States–and indeed, probably not in most of the long list of countries that have abandoned the death penalty (list).  All other rich countries have done so.

Advocates haven’t abandoned the moral argument, but spend more time focused on additional arguments that might win additional support: the high cost of administering the death penalty; the possibility of wrongful conviction; and the racially disparate sentencing of people accused of crimes.

The death penalty has been on its last legs in the United States since the 1970s, when it was banned by the Supreme Court for four years.  (See the Death Penalty Information Center for comprehensive information on the practice of capital punishment in the United States.)  What’s not clear is how many executions will take place in the interim.

Full disclosure: My opposition to the death penalty began when, as a preschooler, I watched an episode of Superman in which Clark Kent, using his clandestine superpowers, conducted his own lie detector test of a man on death row who was, in fact, innocent.  That possibility, of wrongful conviction, was enough for me at 5, to be wary about government executions.  Although I’ve learned a fair amount about the practice of capital punishment since, nothing has shaken this view.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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2 Responses to Framing capital punishment

  1. gringoguapo says:

    Meyer wrote in the Wash Post,”Calls for progressive taxation”! The USA has that now. I am part of the 53%. Tax the poor! They need to have skin in the game. Having 47% of adult citizens paying no federal taxes corrupts federal elections.

    • It’s a mistake to confuse federal income taxes with all federal taxes. Everyone who works for a living pays a payroll tax, which applies to only the first 106,000 they earn. This is an extremely regressive tax. Everyone who buys gasoline pays a federal excise tax, again, a regressive tax. And the tax structure of most states–the places Americans live–are also regressive. I don’t see the “no skin” in the game claim.

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