In a perfect world, the execution of Troy Davis last night in Georgia would herald a new era in America’s grim history with the death penalty. It would shake the criminal justice system out of its self-satisfied torpor and force government and the governed both to face the ugly truth about capital punishment in the United States in the twenty-first century. It would propel this question to the forefront both of the nation’s political debate and the Supreme Court’s docket: How many exceptions to the rule must we allow or tolerate, how many legitimate questions must linger beyond the death chamber, before we either fix the system or end the experiment?
When the state kills those whose guilt is in serious doubt, or when the state kills those to whom it has not given fair justice, it doesn’t just perform an injustice upon the individual, the rule of law, and the Constitution. It also undermines the very legitimacy of the death penalty itself, for its continuing use as a sentencing option derives its civic and moral strength mostly from the fiction that it can be, and is, credibly and reliably imposed. Once our confidence in that credibility is shattered, as it should be now that Davis is gone, all that’s left of the death penalty is state-sponsored retribution and the hangman’s noose.
In a perfect world, the haunting execution of Davis would spawn vital reforms to the clemency and parole process in states like Georgia and Texas, where such proceedings routinely make a mockery of the idea of reasoned justice. It would light a fire under local prosecutors to ensure that witnesses in capital cases are not coerced by law enforcement officials. It would cause jurors to think twice about rushing to judgments. It would force a supine Congress to reevaluate its so-called “effective death penalty“ statute, which neuters legitimate post-conviction appeals. And it would at long last shame state court judges to cast off the yoke of their campaign contributors, who push them to be “tough on crime” at the expense of fealty to the Bill of Rights.