Troy Davis’ execution in Georgia Wednesday night elicited massive amounts of publicity and general outrage.
But, despite the impression given by the media, Davis wasn’t the only American executed that night. The fact that another execution was met with relative silence reflects most Americans’ persistent refusal to openly call for the complete abolition of the death penalty.
Wednesday marked a climax of death penalty coverage and discussion as the dismayed public learned of Davis’ execution. His case involved a considerable amount of doubt — there was no physical evidence tying him to the 1989 murder of Officer Mark MacPhail, and seven of nine witnesses had recanted their testimonies. For years, Davis’ family and human rights activists around the world campaigned on his behalf. The legal fight culminated with a last-minute appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which was ultimately unsuccessful in stopping the execution. Up until his dying breath, Davis asserted his innocence.
On the same night, Lawrence Brewer was executed in Texas. He was convicted of the 1998 racially motivated death of a black man: Brewer and two friends beat James Byrd Jr., chained him to the back of a truck, dragged him for several miles, and dumped his decapitated body near a cemetery. Brewer admitted he was involved in the attack but denied that he killed Byrd. Unsurprisingly, protesters and activists were not as apt to call for the courts to save Brewer’s life.
From a moral standpoint, it’s much easier for people to speak out against the execution of Davis than of Brewer. The dialogue surrounding Davis’ execution focused on the amount of doubt remaining in his case — the outrage was that an innocent man was being put to death. But the divergent reaction to the Brewer execution shows that the general public still supports the death penalty in some instances. Based on these reactions, Americans seem to be more concerned with the innocence of individual death row inmates, rather than challenging the morality of the death penalty in general.
One of the arguments against the death penalty is its permanence; even if the person is later exonerated, it is impossible to retract punishment once the execution has been carried out. In this way, the question of innocence is obviously important in the fight to abolish the death penalty. People wanted justice for Troy Davis — but would they have been just as outraged about his execution if he were definitely guilty?
As Brendan O’Neill wrote in The Telegraph,
The airbrushing of Brewer from yesterday’s heated discussions on the death penalty speaks volumes about the Troy Davis campaign. It seems pretty clear that it was motivated, not by a principled, across-the-board opposition to the state killing of citizens, but rather by campaigners’ desire to indulge in some very public moral preening. Unlike the Brewer execution, which was ugly and complicated, the Davis execution could be squeezed into a cozy moral narrative in which the state of Georgia was depicted as backward and racist and those who opposed the execution of Davis presented themselves as purer than pure, good and decent, and more than willing to prove it by writing tweets of concern every four or five minutes. What message should we take from this disparity in campaigning? That Troy Davis did not deserve to die but Lawrence Brewer did? Such moral flightiness, such brutal arbitrariness, reveals much about today’s very changeable campaigners against the death penalty.
The dialogue — or lack thereof — surrounding Wednesday’s executions reinforces the notion that most Americans still support the death penalty in some cases. A Rasmussen Reports poll from June found that 63 percent of Americans support the death penalty, and only 25 percent oppose it.
This position differs from the international norm. According to the latest capital punishment statistics, only 23 countries carried out executions in 2010. China, Iran, North Korea, and Yemen — countries with notorious human rights records — topped the list of the most executions last year, along with the United States. Despite the controversy surrounding the Troy Davis case, it is still unlikely that the United States will join the rest of the Western Hemisphere, Europe, and many others in abolishing the death penalty.
Amnesty International, which led the protests and vigils in the Davis case, fundamentally opposes the death penalty in all instances. The Troy Davis case became the focus in the fight against capital punishment in part because the glaring inconsistencies made his specific case particularly outrageous and heartbreaking. It is much more complicated to make the public sympathetic to a white supremacist like Brewer, even though Amnesty and others opposed his execution as well. The Amnesty website contained a brief mention of Brewer’s execution: “On the same day, Lawrence Brewer was also executed in Huntsville, Texas. He was sentenced to death for his role in the killing of James Byrd, Jr. in June 1998. Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases, without exception.” Despite this assertion, Amnesty clearly did not mobilize around the Brewer case to the same extent they did for Davis.
While the Troy Davis execution engaged the nation in the death penalty debate, the event might not mobilize the general public in the broader fight to completely abolish the death penalty. Americans are calling for justice, but killing U.S. citizens is still considered “just” in the minds of many people.
The Davis case is indeed tragic, but the greater tragedy is that the United States will most likely continue the practice of killing people convicted of crimes — whether or not they are guilty.