On September 21, 2011, two American men, both in their early 40s, were put to death by order of their state government. One death provoked much discussion; the second was widely ignored. However, it is that second death that matters should we as a nation – or as a collection of states – decide to eliminate the death penalty for good and for all.
Outside of Georgia’s Jackson Prison, opponents of the death penalty gathered to hope, pray, and pay witness to the long death of Troy Davis. Mr. Davis was convicted of killing a police officer, Mark McPhail, in 1989. Whoever the killer was did a dastardly deed. And Mr. Davis was, according to the courts, that man. Over the years there came to be real doubts as to whether he was, in fact, guilty. The case depended largely on eyewitness testimony, and since the trial most of those eyewitnesses changed their stories. Perhaps Mr. Davis was not guilty of this crime.
No one, whatever stance they take on the legality of the death penalty, wishes for the state to kill innocent men, letting the real killer go free. Still, Mr. Davis had twenty years of appeals, and he never found a judge or parole board that was persuaded of his innocence. Shortly before his death, the Supreme Court, without dissent, refused to stay his execution. And it was done. Perhaps we must establish a more robust level of proof and be more modest in our certainty. Without doubt Mr. Davis came to be an impressive advocate for his own innocence. He wanted to live. However, shortly after 11:00 on the night of September 21st, he was put to death by lethal injection. CNN’s Anderson Cooper covered the death watch with inspiring intensity, raising issues of Mr. Davis innocence and also the justice of the death penalty.
Eight-hundred miles west of Jackson, in Huntsville, Texas, another death occurred, quietly and without network klieg lights. Whereas Mr. Davis’s death came with complications over his possible innocence, for most observers the Texas death lacked much in the way of factual doubts. That same Wednesday evening, the state of Texas, also using a lethal injection, put to death Lawrence Russell Brewer. If the death penalty is to be eliminated, the American people must determine that the lives of people like Lawrence Brewer – no, not people like Mr. Brewer, but he himself – must be spared.
Perhaps Mr. Brewer had his fifteen minutes of fame at the time of the murder for which he – as one of three – were convicted, but those minutes had long passed. Lawrence Brewer was found guilty of involvement in the ghastly murder of James Byrd. Back on June 7, 1998, Mr. Byrd, walking along a local road in East Texas, was grabbed, beaten, chained, and then dragged for two miles behind a pickup. In the process he was beheaded. Brewer remains an unrepentant white supremacist and admits some involvement in the events of the night, but he denies being the killer, although he also claims that he would do it again. However, his involvement is certain and his politics – if such is the proper term – is dark and fraught. There was no vigil for Mr. Brewer. He died unmourned. He was no figurehead of unjust justice. Yet, if the death penalty is to be abolished, it is not only the articulate Davises that will live their full years, but the angry Brewers.
In stark contrast to Troy Davis, Lawrence Brewer, in spite of his claims of innocence for the murder, supports the death penalty. The question is, should we? It is hard to deny that over the decades, the death penalty has put some innocent men to death. While we now have instituted an elaborate system of checks as to legal procedure, we often don’t include the possibility of exculpating facts. And that is wrong. Further, many murders are fairly routine, as was that of the police officer whom Davis was accused of killing: they dismay, but do not outrage.
But there are some acts, and the death of James Byrd is a case in point, that call for a collective performance of disgust. The death penalty is not about the killer, but about the society that firmly announces that this must not stand. In our resolve we must not act “as animals,” lusting for blood or applauding the killing, but as a community that announces that some do not to remain in our midst. These deaths stand as a recognition of the possibility of evil.
In 1996, President Bill Clinton said of abortion, “It should not only be safe and legal, it should be rare.” I apply his model to state-sponsored death. The death penalty should be humane, it should be possible, and, most of all, it should be rare. The dramatic differences in the justice of the deaths of Troy Davis and Lawrence Brewer underline that only in extraordinary cases, horrific and unambiguous, death is not a blow at humanity, but a basis of that very humanity.