Comment: Troy Davis will become yet another number in the costly human saga of the US’s justice system

Posted on September 21, 2011


The continued exercise of the death penalty in 34 US States is a national embarrassment and is endemic of a criminal justice system increasingly racked by hypocrisy and contradiction.

Tomorrow Troy Davis will receive the lethal injection for the alleged murder of off-duty policeman Mark Allen MacPhail in 1989, a crime which, it increasingly seems, he may not have committed.

In 2009 I visited Angola Prison, Louisiana’s State Penitentiary. That afternoon, a tour-guide with flared jeans, a straw hat and a naval-style shirt showed us the prisoners’ living quarters, classrooms, their canteen. He walked us along Death Row. But that wasn’t all.

Around one corner and into a waiting area with a water tank and seats, around another corner and we were in the Louisiana State Penitentiary execution chamber. Standing at the head of the “bed” our guide described how  sodium thiopental knocks ‘em unconscious, then Pavulon puts their muscles and respiratory system to sleep, before potassium chloride kills the heart and brain. “Then”, he drawled, obviously enjoying himself, “You dead…Dead, dead, dead.”

This is the same fate Troy Davis faces in Jackson, Georgia, tomorrow, after the state’s Board of Pardons and Paroles refused to grant him clemency. Despite a vast US-led campaign that grew internationally with charities, former-presidents, popes, politicians and celebrities, the 42-year-old African-American will almost definitely be executed.

Davis will become the fourth state death in Georgia this year, the fifty-second since 1976. But the evidence against him is far from consequential. No forensic evidence links Davis to MacPhail’s murder, and six (out of nine) witnesses say another man committed the crime.

The last executions in the UK took place in 1964, and capital punishment was abolished by law in 1969. But a YouGov poll this year found around 60% in favour of reinstating it. So I understand why an American might defend the death penalty. But to the international community it seems bizarrely out of sync with the history and ideals of the United States.

The majority of states still use the death penalty – 34, as opposed to 16 that do not. For Southern states, like Georgia, it can be a symbol of pride and independence, a bloody hangover from the Civil War secession; or, a sign of loyalty to God. Although it’s a federal problem, 80% of US executions take place in the South. It’s the “Death Belt” just as much as it is the Bible’s.

But a justice system based on regional and religious prejudices is not a justice system at all. Politicians in the Capitol admonish countries which follow “Islamic law” at national level (Iran, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Jordan) while practising their very own “Christian law” at home.

Meanwhile the US Constitution permanently enshrines the right to violence, all thanks to the Second Amendment. Not only does the right to keep and bear arms legitimise violence on a federal level; it condones it in theory, while punishing it with death in practice. It is legislation with vast human cost.

Viewed from above, the criminal justice system looks even more contradictory. While Coalition servicemen launch raids and drop bombs on Afghan, Iraqi and Libyan civilians, an exercise which has cost approximately 874,500 innocent lives since 2001; at home, criminals – proven, suspected, and everything in between – are executed in scores each year.

For all the people using religion as their defence; viewing from above, this is the America God sees. At least He can’t knock the Government for consistency.