Archive for Sunday, September 18, 2011

Execution doesn’t balance scales

September 18, 2011


And they raised a cheer for death.

It was a chilling moment, but also a clarifying one in that it validated the grimmest suspicions about at least some of those who support capital punishment. That support, after all, is often framed in terms of high morality, the argument being that only in taking an offender’s life can a society truly express its revulsion over certain heinous crimes.

But when the audience at a recent GOP presidential debate cheered the observation that Texas Gov. Rick Perry has overseen a record 234 executions, that fig leaf was swept away. You knew this was not about some profound question for philosophers and august men. No, this was downturned thumbs in a Roman arena, vengeance putting on airs of justice, the need to see someone die.

People dress that need up in rags of righteousness and ethicality, but occasionally, the disguise slips and it shows itself for what it is: the atavistic impulse of those for whom justice is synonymous with blood. If people really meant the arguments of high morality, you’d expect them to regard the death penalty with reverent sobriety. You would not expect them to cheer.

But that need to see death — the inability to imagine how justice can be had without it — is compelling. Indeed, there can be little doubt that is what is driving Troy Davis toward execution. He’ll die on the 21st, barring clemency from the state of Georgia.

No conclusive forensic evidence ties him to the crime of which he was convicted, the 1989 killing of Savannah police officer Mark MacPhail. Of the nine witnesses who said they saw Davis shoot MacPhail, seven have since recanted, some saying police coerced them into lying. Of the two who have not recanted, one is a man identified by some witnesses as the real killer.

Yet on that dubious basis, Davis is scheduled to die.

It speaks to the power of that need, which was expressed with brutal candor by the dead officer’s mother, Anneliese, in 2008 when Davis received a stay from the Supreme Court. “I’m furious, disgusted and disappointed,” she said. “I want this over with.” She said justice for her son requires death for Davis.

And that makes the letter recently sent by the family of another murder victim all the more remarkable.

James Anderson was killed in June near Jackson, Miss. He was a black man who was beaten and then run over with a pickup truck, allegedly by a group of white teenagers who, according to prosecutors, decided they wanted to go “eff with some N-words.”

The killing was the definition of horrific. Yet in its letter, Anderson’s family asks prosecutors not to seek the death penalty. It is against their faith, they wrote, adding that executing Anderson’s killers will not “balance the scales,” while sparing them may “spark a dialogue” that could help end capital punishment.

“Our loss will not be lessened by the state taking the life of another,” they said.

That the family was able to find such charity of spirit in the depth of their own despair speaks well of them, yes. But it also proves there is nothing foreordained, nothing destined, about this equation of justice with blood. People can grow beyond that. A reverence for life can still trump a need for death.

Consider this column a lonely cheer for that.

— Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CDT each Wednesday on


Maddy Griffin 6 years, 4 months ago

Truly one of your better columns,Leonard. I too was amazed at a crowd of people cheering Rick Perry for having the highest number of executions in his state. I thought Republicans were pro-life. Or how about the cheers that arose at the mention of folks dying of treatable conditions because they could not afford health care.I just don't get it, but I've never understood the Christian-right either. And I would never join the Republikkan party.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 4 months ago

Probably not. Grammady has never demonstrated the proper amount of unbridled greed, much less bloodlust, to be a member of the Pugs.

Liberty275 6 years, 4 months ago

Sorry Leonard. If a person commits a capital crime, and it can be proven beyond a shadow of doubt through a trial and series of appeals, and the jury of his peers recommends death, we have to accept it. It's a grotesque form of punishment, but it has been ruled constitutional.

However, I won't cheer the killing of anything nor would I object to a SCOTUS ruling making capital punishment illegal.

As for your anecdotes, I don't trust you enough to even read them.

voevoda 6 years, 4 months ago

I don't trust a single panel of 12 citizens to arrive at the truth all the time. That's why 1) we have systems of appeal; and 2) we shouldn't sentence convicted persons to death and carry out the sentence. Dead is forever. In Troy Davis' case (more than an "anecdote," Liberty275; Amnesty International provides the same information), there's quite a lot of evidence to suggest that he might have been wrongly convicted. Do you think that he should be executed first, and exonerated after?

Liberty275 6 years, 4 months ago

I think I said there should be a series of appeals. Also, I think I said it was a grotesque form of punishment and that I would not object to it being made unconstitutional.

"I don't trust a single panel of 12 citizens to arrive at the truth all the time."

Then who do you trust to put people in cages until they die?

Linda Endicott 6 years, 4 months ago

I have never been in favor of the death penalty, simply because it can't be undone if a mistake is made...what do they think they can do, just pick them up, brush them off, say a little "oops, sorry", and that will make everything okay for the families?

Considering how many people are exonerated for far lesser crimes all the time, I don't understand how so many can think that a guilty verdict for a death penalty case is always correct...

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 4 months ago

It's amusing how Republicans like to point to the racist history of Democrats, but never manage to acknowledge that nearly all the major racist elements of the Democratic Party have shifted to the Republicans, beginning with Nixon's 68 campaign.

jhawkinsf 6 years, 4 months ago

Here's a bit of research for someone who has greater computer skills than I. Compare how many have been wrongfully executed, that is they have been executed and then later found out to have been innocent. Then compare that number with the number of people who have been sentenced to death and then killed again, either a fellow inmate, a guard or someone on the outside, either during an escape or by conspiring with someone on the outside.
My point is that each carries a certain level of risk. Maybe if we could compare the risk we could better evaluate which path we might choose. And I admit beforehand, I really, really don't have the skill level to do that kind of research. But if nothing else, we might discuss this topic.

Peacemaker452 6 years, 4 months ago

The only way the death penalty can be guaranteed to be consistently and fairly administered is if it is carried out by the intended victim at the time and place of the attempted crime.

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