Thursday, September 22, 2011

800 Words: A Short Blogpost About Killing

(Dekalog V. An hour-long movie about murder which every member of the human race should see. Mostly because it's awesome.)

A young man may or may not have killed another person, but nobody knows since there is neither physical evidence to display his guilt nor innocence. This man is twenty years old when arrested and twenty-one when indicted. He then goes through what feels like endless delays and appeals through the thickets of his local legal system, his state legal system, his federal legal system. His lawyers disprove much of the case against him, the prosecution withdraws nearly the entirety of their testimony. But no matter how close he seems to acquittal, he never gets it. No court views this matter as important enough to dishonor lower courts by overturning their decision. Eventually, the highest court of his country denies him a hearing three times before twice hearing his case. Unlike the lower courts, the highest court is answerable only to itself, and therefore the world awakened to his plight only at the point that he no longer had a chance for survival. As the case draws closer to its inevitable conclusion, is country awakens to the fact that he has been treated unjustly. Protests, petitions and speeches from eminent people rise up across the land to denounce the entire legal system. Yet his country only awakened to the injustice of his situation when he was already in the hands of the land’s highest court, and did so only from the publicity of anti-death penalty organizers. The organizers who set about raising awareness of the death penalty’s inhumanity saw the case of this man and realized that in him they had a perfect victim. Here was a man already likely to die and be a perfect exemplar for them of why the death penalty is unjust. Perhaps by raising awareness and stirring people’s emotions, they could grant him a few more years of life. And during the new years of life which they bought, he is told to expect his imminent execution on four separate occasions. By this time, a quarter century has passed, the young man has now aged and the entire outside world he knew had disappeared without him being there to watch it. By the final year of this case, the high court wants nothing more than a speedy resolution of this matter, which it views as a humiliation which can hold the entire legal system up to ridicule. It realizes that a speedy resolution will not be obtained unless the accused is executed. They therefore strike down all his remaining appeals and the accused man is executed within a half-hour of the case’s conclusion. A whole nation cries tears as though a family member had died, and wakes up the next morning to go about its business.

Most of you will realize that I’m not (consciously) writing a bad Kafka-imitation. I’m merely stating the bare bones of how Troy Davis’s case transpired. Whether or not he did it is almost immaterial. What is germane is that there is cause to doubt his guilt, and cause for doubt is cause to believe that an innocent person was killed. In deference to both the world’s murder victims and wrongfully accused defendents, I should probably rephrase that; cause for doubt is cause to believe that yet another innocent person was killed.

In our quest to maintain the death penalty, our government has spent an average of 4 times as much on death penalty cases as non-death penalty murder cases (approximately $2 million on average versus $500,000). We have executed countless defendents who did not meet the American Bar Association standard of proper representation in a capital case. We’ve granted life imprisonment to serial killers, yet we’ve executed schizophrenics, Alzheimer's patients and the mentally challenged. Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, no less than 138 men and women have had to be released from death row. Four executions have been shown beyond reasonable doubt to be carried out upon the wrongfully accused. 22,000 homicides occur in America every year. Yet only 150 people get the death penalty. It’s a lottery that heavily (dis)favors black people. But the death penalty isn’t simply a relic of Jim Crow. It’s a relic of prehistoric barbarism which instructs that retribution will prevent murder. It is a crime against history as much as humanity.

Some of you will (I hope) read the above paragraph with lots of eye rolling. Surely nobody needs to be told, yet again, that the death penalty is bad. And surely nobody will be any more convinced for or against the death penalty after reading the above paragraph than they were before they read it. But here’s the thing......

…...I think most people who read these statistics have nothing more than a dim awareness of their existence. If you oppose the death penalty, truly oppose it, why haven’t you committed them to memory? More importantly, why haven’t I? Why must it take yet another potentially innocent man on death row with a 1% chance of a commuting for us to get angry about this? Why 2011? Why not 1976? Why not 2046?

It is very difficult to take a mob mentality seriously in any environment. But a mob that takes up the cause of a death row inmate that was already lost so clearly - when there are so many other lives on death row that can still be saved - is the most cosmic sort of black comedy and an odious example of radical chic. Before another 660,000 petitioners find another Troy Davis, there will probably be another few hundred executions in America. How many of those killed will be innocent? How many of them can be stopped right now if they receive all the same manpower Troy Davis did?

As it often does, the world is crying the crocodile tears of self-congratulation tonight. We have all been seen taking our stand against the death penalty, and now we can go about our lives secure for another few days that we are moral people. But even when we go away, the issue continues. Troy Davis is dead. Some of us only heard of him this week. Some of us might have heard about him the last time he had an imminent execution date. But I would venture that nobody reading this post gave him much thought in the time between one execution date and the next. In politics, it’s the preparations people make when a cause is ignored that ultimately determines its outcome. Perhaps this will cause a ripple in the gigantic pool of apathy that inevitably engulfs us when we're needed most. But even if Troy Davis's death turns the tide, we failed Troy Davis just as we have so many others. We failed and killed Troy Davis. And most of us, myself included, will probably forget about him in a few days.


  1. Arguably, while this movement has failed in its ostensible goal (save Davis), it might be the best possible strategic approach to the broader anti-death-penalty ideological movement. If the movement had successfully saved Davis, the whole thing might have defused some of the outrage at the death penalty in general, proving the courts to be at least marginally merciful and self-regulating. Instead, the protests created the ideal failure: doubt is cast on Davis's guilt, but he still dies at the hands of the courts, in front of the whole world; thus, the case is permanently inscribed into the record as a very public example of justice gone astray. Davis becomes the perfect sacrifice on the anti-death-penalty altar.

    Davis's death can now take on at least some positive meaning, becoming a symbol for the anti-death-penalty movement. So is this a kind of redemption? Or the worst possible kind of perversion?

    These are bigger questions than I'm qualified to handle, being a fairweather philosopher who's only aware of this whole thing because it became a media fad.

  2. We'll see.