Capital punishment: America’s barbarian

By Billie Mandelbaum

On September 21, a cruel injustice was committed when Troy Davis, convicted of murdering a Georgia police officer in 1989, was executed. In the weeks leading up to his execution, the case became highly publicized as Davis appealed for a third stay of execution. Davis gathered support from over 630,000 individuals, including former President Jimmy Carter, and major civil rights organizations. However, despite these efforts and what appeared to be a lack of evidence implicating Davis in the killing, the Supreme Court rejected Davis’s appeal. Although Davis’s case became quite the cause célébre, it is just another reminder of America’s unjust and barbaric practice of capital punishment.

The death penalty is fundamentally unjust. In many situations, as in Davis’s case, much of the evidence against the accused comes from “fuzzy” eyewitness testimonies. Many factors can affect how a witness identifies a suspect, from how a police lineup is administered to the lighting of the area in which the crime took place. Although new procedures have been developed, such as the introduction of sequential lineups, according to the Innocence Project, a non-profit legal organization dedicated to overturning wrongful convictions, eyewitness misidentification accounts for over 75 percent of overturned criminal convictions. In Davis’s particular case seven of the nine witnesses from the trial recanted their original witness statements. Although eyewitness identification has been scientifically proven to be inaccurate, juries and judges still heavily weigh witnesses.

However, there have been cases in which convicts are executed and after their execution, new evidence surfaces that suggests they were innocent.

Take, for example, the case of Cameron Todd Wilingham, who in 1992 was sentenced to death in Texas after being convicted of killing his three children by arson. In 2004, days prior to his execution, Wilingham’s lawyers submitted a report to the Governor of Texas (current GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry) and the Texas Board of Pardon and Parole written by arson expert, Gerald Hurst. Hurst’s report stated that the previous forensic evidence that had been gathered in the case contained many errors. State officials, however, did not look into the report and Willingham was executed.

In the years following Wilingham’s execution new investigations were launched, and in 2005 the Texas Forensic Science Commission found that there was no scientific evidence that proved that Wilingham committed arson. There have been numerous cases similar to Wilingham’s, in which evidence surfaces that proves that the executed may have been innocent.

Supporters of the death penalty believe that it is the only way in which justice can be served for murderers. However, how is it just to execute those who may be innocent? The practice of capital punishment remains a contradiction within American society. Although this country was founded on the ideals, such as “liberty and justice for all” we have seen that in far too many death penalty cases, justice cannot be served when those who appear to be innocent are executed.