It has been over four years since Amnesty International released its first report on the case of Troy Davis. In that span of time, three states – New Jersey, New Mexico and Illinois – have abolished the death penalty, and 17 men have been exonerated from our nation’s death rows after their wrongful convictions were overturned.
Yet Troy Davis, whose innocence claim did finally get heard last summer, remains at serious risk of execution. He was unable to prove his innocence to the standard required by the court, but the state of Georgia has been unable to remove doubts about his guilt.
It is a fact (and not a surprising one) that our criminal justice system is not perfect, and cannot resolve all questions before it, and it is interesting to note that all three governors who have signed abolition bills since 2007 cited this imperfection as a major reason for eliminating capital punishment altogether.
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In a recent interview on NPR, former Texas Governor Mark White discussed his lack of faith in the ability of the legal system to reliably handle death penalty cases, and emphasized the seriousness of handing down an irreversible sentence to a person who may later be proven innocent. While he was Governor, he oversaw a significant number of executions, but White now believes that: ”What I see in retrospect is that our system is not as foolproof as I think it should be in order to carry out a punishment that’s irreversible.”
White also stated that he has never believed in the death penalty as a deterrent, because: “Obviously, with 400 people on death row, there’s at least 400 people up there that didn’t deter.”
As Amnesty International observed, Governor White’s evolution on this question is part of a national trend: “As advances in DNA and forensic science have revealed the extent to which our criminal justice system is prone to error, judges, jurors, the public, and even some politicians, have begun to question the wisdom of resorting to capital punishment.”
White’s statements (he’s a Democrat) also come at a particularly bad time for current Governor Rick Perry, who, in the middle of a re-election campaign, is now being scrutinized for his role in the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, who appears to have been innocent and wrongly put to death.
In the past, you would only pay a political price if you didn’t support the death penalty strongly enough. But in Texas, as everywhere else in the U.S., times have changed, and it would be quite something if the most prolific executing Governor in modern history wound up suffering politically because he supported the death penalty too much.