Execution is hardly the same as justice

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Long before authorities executed Troy Anthony Davis without any regard for his guilt or innocence, he was destined to haunt the infernal machinery of capital punishment in America.

For 20 years, Troy Davis sat on death row imagining the moment when Georgia would follow through on its solemn promise to execute him for the murder of Savannah police officer Mark MacPhail.

When they strapped him to the gurney to begin filling his veins with a poison cocktail engineered to explode his heart within minutes, Mr. Davis stuck to his insistence that he had not murdered Officer MacPhail in the parking lot of a fast food restaurant in 1989.

Looking up from his cross-shaped death bed, Mr. Davis told the family of the slain officer that even though he would soon be dead, justice had eluded them. "All I can ask is that you look deeper into this case so you really can finally see the truth," he said.

The truth he was speaking of wasn't the one-syllable word conveniently drained of meaning in courtrooms every day.

He was referring to the term that always resonates with flesh and blood, not the legalistic abstraction preferred by a criminal justice system that often engages in moral somersaults to avoid reality.

Turning to the prison authorities, Mr. Davis didn't act like a man covering up a guilty conscience. "May God have mercy on your souls," he said addressing those empowered to kill him. "May God bless your souls."

Thus ended the life of Troy Davis, a one-time petty criminal who, at the end of his 42 years on this planet, found himself the unlikely symbol of the pathology and arbitrariness of the death penalty in America.

Mr. Davis may not have been anyone's idea of a hero, but there was sufficient doubt about the evidence against him to have inspired both opponents and proponents of the death penalty to lobby for clemency, if not outright exoneration.

Former FBI director William Sessions, Georgia native and former President Jimmy Carter and former Georgia congressman Bob Barr, a pro-death penalty conservative, added their names to a list of notable Americans demanding a new trial for Mr. Davis.

No gun or DNA connecting Mr. Davis to the murder was introduced during the trial. Seven of nine witnesses who identified him as the shooter later recanted, claiming they had been coerced into doing so by the police. In fact, another man confessed to the murder after Mr. Davis had been convicted and sentenced to death.

Protests broke out all over the world on Mr. Davis' behalf. Locally, rapper Jasiri X recorded the anthemic "I Am Troy Davis" to showcase the injustice in Georgia. Other big names joined the effort to save the death row inmate's life, including Pope Benedict XVI and the former warden of the Georgia death chamber.

During his two decades on death row, Mr. Davis was scheduled to be executed three times. In 2008, he was 90 minutes away from being escorted to the death chamber when the U.S. Supreme Court intervened.

Last year, the high court gave Mr. Davis permission to petition for a new trial provided he present his evidence to a lower court. His defense raised doubts about the fairness of the original trial but failed to present what the court considered compelling evidence of his innocence.

Meanwhile, the MacPhail family lobbied the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole to deny Mr. Davis' inevitable plea for clemency. Defying the wife and children of the slain officer wasn't politically feasible for the only institution in Georgia with the power to commute death sentences. Earlier this week, the pardon board denied Mr. Davis' clemency request.

Because the MacPhail family has been convinced of Mr. Davis' guilt for two decades, aiding his cause was a political non-starter for the state's already reliably conservative crop of politicians.

The U.S. Supreme Court offered one last sliver of hope on Wednesday when it put Mr. Davis' scheduled 7 p.m. execution on hold to consider his petition for a stay of execution.

Within hours, the high court denied his request for a stay. The execution went forward.

Troy Davis was pronounced dead at 11:08 p.m.

Outside the prison, hundreds of protestors chanted "We are Troy Davis" all evening as the rain fell. Most Americans yawned. As long as the letter of the law is followed, who cares whether Mr. Davis was guilty or not? Sometimes the spirit of the law gets in the way of American justice.

Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.


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