PRINCETON – Three significant events relating to the death penalty occurred in the United States during September. The one that gained the most publicity was the execution in Georgia of Troy Davis, who had been convicted of the 1989 murder of Mark McPhail, an off-duty police officer.
Davis’s death sentence was carried out despite serious doubts about whether he was guilty of the crime for which he received it. Witnesses who had testified at his trial later said that prosecutors had coerced them. Even death-penalty supporters protested against his execution, saying that he should be given a new trial. But the courts denied his appeals. In his final words, he proclaimed his innocence.
The deliberate judicial killing of a man who might have been innocent is deeply disturbing. But the execution was consistent with something that happened just two weeks earlier, at one of the debates between Republican candidates for their party’s nomination to challenge President Barack Obama next year. Texas Governor Rick Perry was reminded that during his term of office, the death penalty has been carried out 234 times. No other governor in modern times has presided over as many executions. But what is more remarkable is that some audience members applauded when the high number of executions was mentioned.
Perry was then asked whether he was ever troubled by the fact that one of them might have been innocent. He replied that he did not lose any sleep over the executions, because he had confidence in the judicial system in Texas. In view of the record of mistakes in every other judicial system, such confidence is difficult to justify. Indeed, less than a month later, Michael Morton, who had served nearly 25 years of a life sentence for the murder of his wife, was released from a Texas prison. DNA tests had shown that another man was responsible for the crime.