”I am innocent,” Troy Davis said moments before he was executed Wednesday night. ”All I can ask…is that you look deeper into this case so that you really can finally see the truth. I ask my family and friends to continue to fight this fight.” Davis did not die alone last week. He had the support of millions in this country and abroad because his case touched something in all of us, especially those of us who allow ourselves to break away from the pressure to just go along. Celebrities spoke out, websites buzzed, campuses mobilized, young people usually apathetic found themselves stirred. Vigils and protests were held around the country and in Europe. The story made the front page of practically every major U.S. newspaper.
Something about Davis’ plight touched us. I talked about it with others fairly clear and dry eyed. But I could not hold back tears when I saw the well-circulated Associated Press picture of a woman bent over in tears and in just absolute inconsolable grief with her friend trying to comfort her. The fact that they were White women is important because it was evidence of the comprehensive grief of the compassionate, the concerned, the caring. It brought me to tears because I think the woman was not just crying for the condemned: She was crying because she was witnessing a grave injustice, for which she was powerless to overturn. She like the rest of us turned to tears because words could not overturn or explain the deep anguish felt when witnessing that which you cherish fade away, dissipate before your very eyes.
With his death something died deep in the American soul. The decision was not based on merit, or fairness, or the requirements of U.S. jurisprudence. The insistence by the State that Davis should die was not a reflection of Davis’ guilt but the blood lust of the system that is the engine of our society. This was a political decision. An officer of the law — a representative of the powerful, a protector of the money changers, guardian of the sanctity of property — was killed. Thus one of the un-moneyed, the un-favored, the un-influential, the unimportant — any one of them — must pay. It really is as simple as that.
In spite of Davis’ words on his death bed, we may never really know if he indeed was innocent. But what we know for sure is that we don’t know for sure! And that is the point — there is lots of reasonable doubt. “If one of our fellow citizens can be executed with so much doubt surrounding his guilt, then the death penalty in our country is unjust and outdated,” said former U.S. president Jimmy Carter. And we understand that the system has its rules and regulations, its protocol. But we are not blind. We know that had Davis’ last name been Rockefeller or Koch or Kennedy, ways and means would have been found.
Davis’ death goes against the grain of human decency. “First do no harm” is a good measuring stick for how the State should decide who should get the death penalty. It would seem to make sense that the most important decision a State could make — who lives and who dies — would be decided by the utmost fairness. Life is precious, in fact the most precious gift we have; those who take it without the necessary humility, caution and respect should not take on such a solemn task. In fact, the death penalty assumes that those administering it have clean hands and can sit in judgment of their fellow human beings.
But that is far from the case in the U.S. Those at the top clearly do not have clean hands, in fact the very difficulty in determining who should die and who should live is why most semi-civilized Western societies have ended the practice. And nobody has clean hands. “It was not appropriate” for the president to weigh in, said President Barack Obama’s press secretary Jay Carney about why the White House remained silent. I can’t help but wonder if the White House understands that appropriate means “fitting.” What would have been more fitting? In sum, the execution should more accurately be described as a form of systemic malfeasance: that is, the wanton disregard for human life. Those clinging to the notion that the system worked may be technically correct, but in reality it failed in every way imaginable.