Their names are on the killing list
And soon they shall be dead
With poison in their veins
Or lightning through their heads
On 19th August 1989 a fight broke out in a car park in Savannah, Georgia, whereby a homeless man, Larry Young, was on the receiving end of a beating. An off-duty police officer, Mark Allen McPhail, ran to the scene to break it up and render assistance to the victim. He was shot dead for his troubles. Sylvester Coles admitted fighting with Young but accused another man present, Troy Davis, of the shooting. In 1991 Troy Davis was convicted of murder and sentenced to death.
There was no physical evidence linking Davis to the crime. Seven of nine witnesses who had damned him in the original trial later recanted their testimony. Troy Davis never denied being present but always maintained his innocence of the crime. Despite serious doubt (never mind ‘reasonable’ doubt) being raised regarding the evidence of his guilt, and possible innocence, the verdict stood. Troy Davis was executed by lethal injection on 21st September 2011.
Capital punishment is the most premeditated of murders – Albert Camus
No system of justice is infallible but how can it be that the testimony of seven witnesses was regarded as reliable in the original conviction, yet not subsequently when they recanted that testimony?
Warren Hill was due to be executed on Tuesday night but was granted a stay of execution, just 30 minutes before the appointed hour. For the second time. Although the state of Georgia seems hell-bent on killing him, lawyers are fighting on his behalf to prevent this eventuality. But this is not a matter of guilt or innocence. Rather, it is to do with Hill’s mental condition.
Nine doctors have given expert opinion that Warren Hill is ‘mentally retarded’ (an official legal term used in the US). Twelve years ago, three forensic psychologists gave evidence stating he did not meet the definition of ‘mental retardation’. That remained their opinion until as recently as last week. All three have now changed their minds, saying the original assessment had been rushed and they were mistaken. There is now complete agreement with the other medical experts in the case that Warren Hill is intellectually disabled.
In 2002, the US Supreme Court banned the execution of prisoners who are mentally retarded. Ironically, Georgia was the first US state to ban such killings. However, in so doing it put the burden of proof upon death row prisoners to prove, beyond reasonable doubt, they suffered from this degree of mental impairment. Specialists in the field believe it to be virtually impossible for such people to do so.
The mental impairment of Warren Hill is well documented and should never have been in doubt. He has a history of learning difficulties and borderline intellectual functioning. A sub-average level of reasoning (with an IQ of 70) which is shared by 3% of the American population, he is prone to poor decision-making and impulsive behaviour when under stress or threat.
It is better to risk saving a guilty person than to condemn an innocent one – Voltaire
These two cases illustrate how dangerously flawed the justice system can be. A great number of death row prisoners have been exonerated of their crimes while awaiting execution. But what of those who were not so fortunate? And is it right or hypocritical to kill someone because they have killed someone? Do the ends justify the means?
Why do we kill people who are killing people to show that killing people is wrong – Norman Mailer
Furthermore, what of the message that murder is wrong – unless sanctioned by the state? The death penalty is a lottery where minority groups, the poor and mentally challenged are the losers. Those having the wherewithal for a robust defence are rarely sentenced with the same outcome. As for capital punishment being a deterrent, numerous studies by the United Nations and other bodies (supported by crime statistics) have shown the death penalty to be no more of a deterrent than other methods of punishment, to say nothing of the human rights issues.
To take a life when a life has been lost is revenge, not justice – Desmond Tutu
A strong motivating force behind capital punishment is the base human emotion of vengeance, rather than justice, and this is entirely understandable. Who of us would not seek the most dire retribution for the murder of those we hold closest to our hearts? But this is not justice, for there can be no justice for such loss. Nothing can bring them back to us.
And the same is true for the death penalty. There is no coming back. In many interviews with the families of victims in capital cases, the execution of the perpetrator has brought them no solace. For some it has even exacerbated their suffering.
Is it enough that in order to successfully prosecute these cases, to legally kill another human being in the name of the state, proof of guilt must be beyond reasonable doubt? Let me repeat that – beyond reasonable doubt. If the state is prepared to take the life of one of its citizens it had better be absolutely bloody certain of guilt. And no doubt.
All creatures kill – there seems to be no exception. But of the whole list man is the only one that kills for fun; he is the only one that kills in malice; the only one that kills for revenge – Mark Twain