Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Troy Davis Roller Coaster Continues

After the US Supreme Court rejected Troy Davis' cert petition, the state of Georgia set an execution date of October 27th. Yesterday, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals (federal court) granted another stay. They asked the sides to brief an interesting question that essentially boils down to can we have sufficient confidence in a verdict to uphold a conviction while not feeling confident enough to uphold a death sentence.

While I am happy anytime an execution is stayed, I am a little troubled by an idea that seems fairly prevalent among the public, and I believe also among capital juries. There seems to be an idea that if we're not sure of a defendant's guilt, we should err on the side of convicting, but sentencing to life in prison. Somehow if we have a doubt about the defendant's guilt, the remedy seems to have transformed into a life sentence rather than a new trial or a flat-out acquittal. Because it would be a travesty to kill a guy who is actually innocent. But isn't it also a pretty big travesty to incarcerate a man for the rest of his life if he is actually innocent?

It seems to me if we don't have enough confidence in a defendant's guilt to justify a death sentence, we shouldn't be incarcerating the guy at all. In Troy Davis' case, we really shouldn't just commute the sentence to life and walk away. Nor should we walk away from other defendant's who have compelling cases for innocence or who suffered serious trial flaws just because those defendants were not sentenced to death. A life spent wrongly incarcerated is just as wasted as one prematurely terminated by the state.

One of the reasons many people prefer life in prison to the death penalty is the ability to correct the mistakes. I hope the courts that look at Troy Davis' case and those like his don't decide they've sufficiently corrected mistakes by commuting death sentences to life. If there is so much doubt about a defendant's guilt that a court feels uncomfortable allowing a death sentence to be carried out, how can they feel comfortable allowing the conviction to stand?

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