Will The Davis Case Change The Death Penalty?

Andrew Sullivan —  Sep 22 2011 @ 8:21pm


Steve Kornacki is hopeful but not optimistic:

It's tempting to wonder if the Troy Davis story — which has received considerable press attention …. — might serve as a public opinion tipping point. But that potential is balanced against another reality: For all of the systemic flaws that have been revealed in the past decade or so — for all of the innocent people who have been freed after years of incarceration — the basic eye-for-an-eye nature of the death penalty remains compelling for most Americans, a sentiment reinforced by the occasional horrific crime…The reality is that we have seen other cases like Troy Davis' before — Perry may have presided over one of them just a few years ago in Texas — and it will probably take a lot more of them before Americans ever give up on the death penalty for good.

Dahlia Lithwick counters:

Advances in science and the empirical research on erroneous convictions are only going to create more doubt in the future. There is an almost unlimited supply of prosecutorial error and misconduct to draw on, and as it grows so will public uncertainty. And as the new media and social media broaden the debate about the death penalty, the folks who are leery of that uncertainty are ever more likely to be heard. America's conversation over capital punishment has long been weighted toward the interests of finality. But there is a growing space for reason and doubt and scientific certainty. It's hardly a surprise that prosecutors, courts, and clemency boards favor finality over certainty. That—after all—is the product they must show at the end of the day.

But maybe the surprise, and the faint hope, of the massive outcry over the execution of Troy Davis, is that the rest of us have found a way to demand more from a system that has—for too long—only needed to be good enough.

Ari Kohen argues we need better anti-death penalty activism to make real changes. Scott Lemieux explains how the structure of our legal system allows cases like Davis's. Previous coverage here and here. Jason Brennan steps back and makes a pithy argument against the death penalty:

Even if we grant for the sake of argument that some people deserve to die, it does not follow that the state may be authorized to kill them. For a state to have the right to kill criminals, it must make decisions about guilt and hear appeals in a fair, competent, and reliable manner. It must have rules that reliably let the innocent–or those whose guilt is reasonably in doubt–go free. The American criminal justice system fails to meet these standards. Perhaps a government of smart angels should be granted the right to kill. We could debate that. But no state in America deserves any such right.

(Photo: Monica Barrow of California waits for news of the US Supreme Court appeal decision as she waits with other protestors outside the Jackson State Prison for the planned execution of inmate Troy Davis on September 21, 2011 in Jackson, Georgia. The appeal was the last effort for the stay of Davis' execution. He was scheduled for execution at 7pm on Wednesday, September 21, 2011 for the 1989 slaying of off-duty Savannah, Ga., police officer Mark MacPhail. By Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)