CrimProf Blog

Editor: Kevin Cole
Univ. of San Diego School of Law

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Davis backers come in all stripes

In his Oct. 21 op-ed about the Troy Davis death penalty case, Spencer Lawton, the district attorney who prosecuted the case in 1991, asserts that: “The only information the public has had in the 17 years since Troy Davis’ conviction has been generated by people ideologically opposed to the death penalty, regardless of the guilt or innocence of the accused.” That is simply not true.

And the fact that it is not true matters, just as the fact that Davis, whose execution has been stayed by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, may be innocent matters.

Neither Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr nor former FBI Director William Sessions can be characterized as ideologically opposed to the death penalty. That shoe does not fit. Nor does it fit the many citizens of Georgia who simply want to hold the Board of Pardons and Paroles to its word: “[We] will not allow an execution to proceed … unless and until its members are convinced that there is no doubt as to the guilt of the accused.”

Lawton is resorting to ad hominem attack on the moral integrity of the concerned members of the public who have stepped forward to challenge the legitimacy of using the power of the state to execute Davis.

Certainly, many are categorically opposed to the death penalty. But that does not mean they are not especially concerned and aggrieved when that power is wielded without due regard for the weakness of the case against the accused.

Nor does that approach recognize that many, myself included, who oppose the death penalty do so not on the grounds that it is morally untenable in all cases, but rather out of the well-founded concern that it is too awesome a power to be wielded by human hands. We know too well the truth of the oft-recalled adage: “To err is human.”

Many of us can imagine a crime that would, in our judgment, justify the use of the death penalty. No one, however, or at least no one guided by any moral precepts, can justify the use of the death penalty when there is significant question as to guilt. [Mark Godsey]

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