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A Plea to the USA about the Death Penalty

Posted by spritzophrenia on September 22, 2011

By the time I write this it may be too late. Troy Davis, who may very well be an innocent man, will be killed by the state. Which is, if we truly believe in representative democracy, the same as being killed by us.

I’m sure you’ve heard various arguments, and you may have me pegged as a “bleeding heart liberal”. My life has been affected twice by murder. Firstly, a high school friend’s 21 year-old brother, who I’ll call Calvin, was killed at a party. I remember going to the trial. I remember seeing a good friend of Calvin’s give monosyllabic answers under questioning in the dock. This seemed strange until we learned later that the Mongrel Mob gang had beaten him up the night before to ensure he wasn’t too “helpful” to the prosecution. The young man who knifed Calvin and left him bleeding to death in his car was a gang prospect. Allegedly he was heard to mutter afterwards, “I’ve earned my [gang] patch now.”

The second time I was affected by murder was far worse. My sister’s best friend, at age 25 was brutally abducted, raped and murdered, and her body left to rot for 10 days before it was found. My sister still hasn’t recovered. It took 10 years before her killer was found. I have to admit, I wanted to hurt him. I do know what it feels like to feel the raging desire of revenge, and want to call it justice.

Troy Davis

Troy Davis.

But in the end, I know it’s not just. Here in New Zealand, the last man we executed was in 1957. Our society hasn’t gone downhill since then. In fact, we have a very low murder rate compared with yours in the USA. Since that time at least one man would have been executed here in the 1970s. Arthur Allan Thomas was convicted twice of murder and spent 8 years in jail before being proven innocent and pardoned. Only two years ago here in New Zealand, David Bain, who spent many years in prison for allegedly slaughtering his whole family, was released as innocent.

Giorgio Agamben has predicted the return of homo sacer, the sacred man “who may be killed and yet not sacrificed”. He sees the concentration camp as the paradigm of modern politics, as we increasingly strip our citizens of all humanity and leave them as “naked life”. Maybe he’s right. We are outraged when (say) Saudi Arabia cuts people’s hands off or executes them by stoning. But really, what is the difference? Making someone wait for 10 years of appeals with the threat of death hanging over them is akin to torture. And the actual execution process is not a lot better either – see the death by lethal injection scene in “Dead Man Walking”.

There are hideous crimes, and people who should probably be never released from prison. But I know from various angry attempts at revenge in my own life that killing them, in the end, makes me just as brutalising. And if it’s our state that’s doing it, then we are complicit. Isn’t it time for us to grow up?

Consider supporting the Amnesty International USA Abolish the Death Penalty campaign.

Ten reasons why Troy Davis should not have been killed.


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20 Responses to “A Plea to the USA about the Death Penalty”

  1. At the time of writing there has been a “temporary stay”. You can track tweets from a journalist at the prison here http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/interactive/2011/sep/21/troy-davis-execution-tweets

    • 10:40 pm GA time:

      Supreme Court denies his last appeal


      Tweets from the Guardian site journalist above:

      * US supreme court rules that execution of man convicted on basis of 9 witnesses 7 of whom recanted can go ahead. Justice served?

      * Larry Cox of Amnesty on news that #TroyDavis last hope has gone. “we will redouble efforts so innocent person goes through this again”

      * TroyDavis will right now be being strapped to gurney ahead of 3 lethal imjections being put in his veins

      I don’t think I can follow this story any more today.

      It’s at times like this, that this agnostic prays. Have mercy.

      • Troy Davis was executed shortly after 11pm local time GA. Time of death was listed as 11:08pm.

        His last words to the family of the murdered policeman were: “I was not the one who did it. I did not have a gun. Look deeper to find the truth”

        Troy Davis’ last words to his executioners were “May God have mercy on your souls. May God bless your souls.”

        (the above from reputable sources, let me know if these need correcting)

  2. I’ve never found the death penalty appealing, even at an age where I might’ve been more inclined to think in such a purely emotional way about people’s deaths and justice. But justice isn’t so black and white that it requires declaring people aren’t worth living anymore. In fact, it does the very thing many Christian right politicians say would happen with the so called secular nation run by atheism: it arbitrarily makes the judgment of a person’s worth based on a standard not everyone agrees upon and isn’t even moderately objective in how it works. I’m reminded that Maimonides, a well known Jewish writer, of whom I’ve read only a fraction of his Guide For the perplexed, also believed that the death penalty wasn’t permissible unless there was absolute certainty. The quote I found goes like this “It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death.

    • I didn’t know that quote was from Maiminodes. Thanks. I agree.

      • It’s formulated some in general with Jewish jurisprudence. The story of Abraham in Sodom and protesting that there could be innocent people in the village is part of the principle, and in Exodus, it’s said that you shouldn’t slay the innocent or righteous. It seems to me that even some Christians would heartily oppose this use of presumptive justice or so called ultimate justice, claiming humans have no place to make those sorts of proclamations of guilt;only God allegedly has that authority.

  3. SugarPop said

    A powerful post, Jonathan. Like you I’m against the death penalty.

    I agree with removing some of the priviledges of society when someone acts against the moral code, as in rape, murder etc, but to take their life? Who are the rest of us to say that someone “should” be put to death? This makes us the same as a the one who committed the crime in the first place, except we can “justify” it because as a society we have said that murder under these conditions is ok. Murder is not ok – ever.

    Secondly there is the question of whether guilt or innocence is certain – beyond reasonable doubt does not equal absolute certainty. It horrifies me how many innocent people are incarcerated. The Guildford Four come to mind (this case was portrayed in the 90s movie “In the Name of the Father”) and I wonder how many innocent people have been put to death. I cannot bear the thought.

    P. S. Jared – great quote.

  4. The Agnostic Pentecostal said

    If nothing else, let me go on record, as a native Texan, a representative of the U.S. state that conducts the most executions in this here land, I am SO against executions. As I write this, at 10:05, a human is in the actual process of being killed by other humans representing a “fair” government that’s supposed to be “of the people and by the people,” and built on the idea that “all are created equal” and the idea that all should have equal opportunity…and so often none of those ideals are upheld by our nation. This whole thing is so very sad on so many levels. It makes me want to live in New Zealand. ;-/

    • The Agnostic Pentecostal said

      By the way, I grew up very near the town in which the Texas man recently executed drug a black man behind his truck. I grew up in KKK country. My reaction against the prejudiced/racist way of life in which I grew up causes me to especially abhor race-based crimes. The Texas man who was recently executed is the perfect case study to test any potential hypocrisy in my views. But I still deeply feel that state execution is revenge, not justice. Justice at least implies the possibility of some sort of redemption. That is far too often not the case with our justice system. Anyway, great post. Sorry for the multiple posts.

      • Not at all Dave, I appreciate your contribution. I have been kinda spinning my wheels all day over this, not getting any other work done. I’m not sorry, a life is worth it.

        This agnostic is praying there is a just afterlife for him.

  5. The Agnostic Pentecostal said

    …And one last thing… Thought it appropriate to let Troy Davis have his say here, in his own words. Here’s a letter from him:


  6. I believe in an eye-for-an-eye form of justice only if the punishment is justifiable. It appears that the evidence on Troy Davis is shaky at best. There has been many people executed on similar or less evidence. Instead of making an example out of Davis by killing him, maybe the Justice System can make an example by sparing his life and showing that the system works on unbiased facts rather than hypothetical circumstances! It appears that fairness is an objective subject.

  7. Cristine said

    I am not against the death penalty. I do not think it is the same as what the criminal did. The criminal killed an innocent victim. The person the death penalty applied toward is not an innocent victim. That said, there are a lot of problems with our current system.

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