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A tale of two executions

Posted by Alan Wirzbicki  September 21, 2011 04:47 PM

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The impending execution at 7 p.m. of Troy Davis in a Georgia prison has provoked a wave of international condemnation — from the pope to Kim Kardashian.

In contrast, another execution scheduled for tonight — that of Lawrence Brewer in Texas — has barely registered in the news.

Why the difference? The key distinction is that there’s little doubt that Brewer is guilty of the murder of James Byrd in 1998, a crime that made national news for its racial overtones and gruesome nature.

Davis, on the other hand, may well be innocent. The point that risks getting lost in the debate is that the outcry over his execution isn’t just about capital punishment itself — it’s about the shortcomings of a justice system that could be sending an innocent man to his death.

The accumulating doubts about Davis’s guilt are based significantly on the fact that seven of the nine eyewitnesses who testified against him at his original trial for allegedly murdering Mark McPhail, an off-duty police officer trying to break up a fight on a hot summer night in Savannah, have recanted. Although an appeal to the Supreme Court did allow Davis to receive a hearing for a new trial, he did not prevail at the hearing because the standard set required him to “clearly establish” his innocence — which is an extremely high evidentiary bar to meet.

We can only maintain the death penalty if it is reserved for those, like Brewer, whose guilt is unquestioned. The possibility of executing an innocent does nothing to promote justice, to exact retribution for the victim’s survivors, or deter others from committing murder in the future. It merely degrades our entire criminal justice system. Even if there is a minute chance of Davis’s innocence (and the evidence in Davis’s favor is far from minute), the harm of dragging out legal proceedings for a few months is nothing compared to even the slightest possibility of putting an innocent man to death.

Davis’s case has attracted many of these supporters, including the former director of the Georgia Department of Corrections and former Republican congressman Bob Barr — not because they believe the death penalty is wrong, but because they believe it is wrong to carry it out on a possibly innocent man.

HO/AFP/Getty Images: Troy Davis.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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