At 11.08pm on September 21, a 42-year-old man who had endured over two decades on death row was given a lethal injection that sent him into a permanent slumber. The deadly cocktail of drugs worked to render him unconscious, paralyse his lungs and stop his heart.
As this was happening, hundreds lined up outside Georgia prison chanting and millions across the world waited with baited breath – first in hope, then in exasperation, and finally in defeat, dejection and despair. Troy Anthony Davis was executed for allegedly murdering a Savannah policeman; a crime that we will now never get to the heart of.
The inconsistencies of the case are well-versed: no murder weapon was ever found; 7 of the original 9 witnesses recanted their testimonies; there was no DNA evidence conclusively linking Davis to the crime; his protestation of innocence was unwavering, and starkly juxtaposed to the alternative suspect’s admissions of guilty behaviour; remarkably, his case even managed to unite the Pope, a former US President, a former FBI Director and a deluge of Non-Governmental Organisations in his defence.
Yet in spite of this, Voltaire’s exhortation that “It is better to risk saving a guilty man than condemn an innocent one” was a whisper in the wind as the Supreme Court denied Davis commutation and the US President denied him clemency. They cast aside all these doubts, which made an irreparable miscarriage of justice a serious possibility, against the better advice of the Council of Europe, and allowed the execution to proceed. Davis’s life was gambled and lost.
Yet whilst the struggle to save Davis’s life is over, the battle to end the death penalty goes on. The dramatic final moments of his life, in the context of his execution date being set and changed three times already before that, has provoked anew questions about the morality of the death penalty and the cruelty of death row. Davis had spent his last 22 years on death row, a damning sentence in and of itself, unsure how far into the future he dared to look. As well as an interrogation of the death penalty, the draconian process as a whole must be scrutinised, beginning with death row.
Aligning myself with countless human rights organisations, my opposition to death row stems from the fact that it is a form of mental and psychological torture. Moreover, over the past 4 decades in the United States alone, 140 individuals sentenced to death and placed on death row were later exonerated. They were potentially moments away from unjust death and tragedy. William A. Schabas’s study on capital punishment provides an expert conspectus on the many attempts – both successful and foiled – to challenge capital punishment in the world’s courts, as well as an illustration of the many legal and humanitarian flaws with both the death penalty and death row. I hope that the now familiar image of the bespectacled Troy Davis, which has circulated around the world, will continue this positive trajectory.
It is time for the entire world to recognise capital punishment for the anachronistic and perilous practice that it is. It is a practice which should be confined to the annals of history, left to wither and wilt alongside such discredited concepts as phrenology or Cesare Losurdo’s theory of criminology; we no longer believe that the shape of a person’s skull is sufficient evidence to indict them of criminality or that a person is simply born criminal. So too must we vociferously reject the idea of institutionalised killings as a means of justice.
All across the world, students have always been at the forefront of change: they protested against the Vietnam War; they stood in solidarity with ordinary South Africans against the Apartheid regime (our NUS, which celebrates its 90th birthday next year, has a proud and pioneering history of support for South African students); they held walk-outs to protest the Iraq War and staged sit-ins to express solidarity with the Palestinians during Operation Cast Lead, an operation that Amnesty International’s official report called the ‘22 days of Death and Destruction’. Even today, students – at the risk of imprisonment and worse – continue to be the catalysts for change and justice across the Arab uprisings.
This is the spirit and tradition students must invigorate and utilise to campaign against capital punishment. This challenge is not solely the preserve of those living in countries with a capital punishment system in place – it is a challenge for all those who believe that collective action from all corners of the globe can make a difference. Davis has become a symbol of a movement which, in his own words, seeks “to end the death penalty, to seek true justice, to expose a system that fails to protect the innocent”. Students must place themselves at the heart of this movement.
It is not my intention here to romanticise Troy Davis or his death. Nor is it my intention even to protest his innocence, of which neither the reader nor I can be certain (which is rather the point). My intention is simply to respond to the serious questions that have been raised about the viability and sustainability of a system with limited accountability and nil reversibility.
Seen in this context, Davis’s death is a tragedy, but the greatest tragedy would be for the world to allow his death to go in vain. Instead, his death should signal the rebirth of a candid discussion on the perils of death row and capital punishment, and hopefully lead to their ultimate demise. The case of Troy Davis must signal the death knell for the death penalty.