This essay originally appeared on Palo Alto Patch.
My son and I watched The Green Mile the other night. You may know the story: An African-American man is falsely accused of murder, and, despite their conviction that he is innocent, his jailers are required to execute him. You see, he was given the death penalty for a crime he didn’t commit.
After the movie ended, my son shook his head (was that a tear I saw?) and said, “That just isn’t right.”
No. It’s not. But that is just what may have happened this week in Atlanta when Troy Davis was put to death after being convicted of murdering a police officer in 1989. When my son asks me about it, and he will, how do I tell him injustice doesn’t only happen in the movies, that truth often resembles fiction, and sometimes it is?
According to the Innocence Project, the case against Troy Davis consisted entirely of witness testimony that contained inconsistencies, even at the time of the trial. Many of the original witnesses have since stated they were pressured or coerced by police into testifying or signing statements against Davis. I wonder what his executioners were thinking in the last moments of Troy Davis life. Perhaps they didn’t doubt his guilt, but I do.
For me, the tragedy and turmoil of his state-sanctioned killing is a reflection of the deep flaws in our capital punishment system. And it’s not only in Georgia, but here in Our Fair State, too.
There are 694 men and 19 women sitting on death row in California. We have executed 13 people since 1978. As of February 2006, however, all death penalty cases were stopped when lethal injection was legally challenged. As challenges to the death penalty work their way through the courts, the average time between death sentences and executions is 25 years and, in some cases, more than 30 years. Meanwhile, the tab is adding up.
According to a Los Angeles Times study, California spends $250 million per execution. Further, it costs approximately $90,000 more a year to house an inmate on death row than in the general prison population, or $57.5 million annually. Finally, Death Penalty Focus claims California could save $1 billion over five years by replacing the death penalty with permanent imprisonment.
Don Heller, a Republican, former prosecutor and the author of the 1978 ballot initiative that reinstated California’s death penalty, says, “It makes no sense to prop up such a failed system.” Now after 33 years, Heller is advocating for the repeal of death penalty, in favor of life without parole.
“I am convinced that at least one innocent person may have been executed under the current death penalty law,” Heller wrote in a recent op-ed piece. Sounds like a Troy Davis situation to me.
Heller urges California voters to support a new ballot initiative (SB490) called SAFE California that would abolish the state’s death penalty.
But, you say, violent criminals are still out there, and they need to be punished. Perhaps, if we could be sure of the criminal’s guilt, one could argue there are certain instances in which the death penalty is merited. But can we ever be fully sure?
Unlike the case against Troy Davis, we don’t rely on the questionable testimony of coerced witness these days. We have DNA. Sadly, as we look to DNA to match a violent criminal with a violent crime, we must remember that even this latest of solutions is riddled with problems. Turns out crime labs fail (except, of course, the ones on CSI).
Consider the crime lab scandal that has rocked San Francisco. A report detailing shoddy testing and analytic reporting was buried by the SF Police Department, and now case upon case is being challenged in the San Francisco courts. The fallout from the scandal means guilty criminals are being released, and the innocent may be convicted.
The report claims Cherisse Boland, an analyst in the DNA unit of the San Francisco Police Department Crime Laboratory, did not do her full job in a 2007 murder case. Apparently, she didn’t pursue the extensive DNA material left by others. She “stopped short once she had partial genetic matches to the two men police believed had committed the crime.” In other words, she gave the police what they wanted to hear (sounds a little like the witnesses in the Troy Davis case, but I digress).
Frankly, it is so completely understandable. We have someone we think is guilty and we ignore the evidence that might reveal another narrative, one not so neatly solved. And, as any lover of The Wire knows, solving cases is critical for police departments and for the careers of police officials. The crime lab scandal in San Francisco shows us that just as eye-witness testimony can be flawed, so can DNA testing. In other words, we simply can’t be sure.
As I kiss my children in bed at night, I try to ignore the horrors that swirl outside our front door: kidnapping, rape, murder. I know they exist; the headlines remind me every day. I choose not to imagine how I might feel if someone, anyone, hurt my beloveds. Perhaps an eye for an eye would be a welcome relief to something so necessarily unimaginable. I don’t know what is right, but I do know what is wrong.
Killing a man who just might be innocent is wrong.
If there was a fool-proof solution, an iron-clad answer, a truth so crystalline nothing murky could mar its clarity, then and maybe only then, an eye for an eye could be justified. But this issue is as gray as the fog that hangs over Our Fair City these recent mornings. I don’t have an answer for my children. Do you?