When in Doubt

When is it OK for the state to put a prisoner to death?  We at Amnesty International of course say “Never”.  (And two-thirds of the world’s nations agree with us.)  At the other end of the spectrum, US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia says the state should be free to kill someone who has been convicted and sentenced to death in a “full and fair trial”, even if he can later show he is innocent.

The judge who presided over Troy Davis’ hearing in Savannah, GA, last month is likely to come down somewhere in the middle.  But where?  Amnesty International has just released a report that discusses Davis’ hearing and assesses what guidance there is internationally on this question. It turns out the world has a pretty common-sense suggestion for us.  If there is doubt about someone’s guilt, there should be no execution.

Of course the language of the Safeguards Guaranteeing Protection of the Rights of Those Facing the Death Penalty, adopted by the United Nations Economic and Social Council in 1984 and endorsed by the UN General Assembly, is a little wordier than that, but not much:

Capital punishment may be imposed only when the guilt of the person charged is based upon clear and convincing evidence leaving no room for an alternative explanation of the facts.

The Troy Davis case is buried in doubts.  Doubts from the witnesses whose recantations were are the heart of last month’s hearing, doubts from jurors (see pages 16-17), doubts from a former Georgia Supreme Court Justice who originally upheld his conviction, and even – with over 130 exonerations from death row since the 1970s – doubts about the reliability of the criminal justice system itself.

International opinion is slowly moving towards a consensus that all executions are an affront to human rights and human dignity, and an unacceptable abuse of power by the state.  Not everyone agrees with that yet, but for now can’t we at least agree that no one should be put to death when there is so much doubt?

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8 thoughts on “When in Doubt

  1. Well sure the life of an innocent human being is important but what about the legal principle of Finality?

    "Better ten actually innocent men are executed than to forbid the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial."
    – Justice Antonin Scalia (attributed)

  2. Yours is not a fair summary of Justice Scalia’s opinion in this case.

    A fairer summary might be:

    1. There is no doubt about Davis’ conviction, the evidence against it having already been adequately considered.

    2. If there were doubt, referring the case to the District Court would still be pointless, since it is powerless to take any action.

    Justice Scalia’s opinion might well be totally unreasonable, but it is not helpful to characterise the opinion as saying that Davis’ execution must go ahead ‘even if he can show he is innocent’. That is the opposite of what it says, and by arguing against a straw man you will distort the debate and weaken your own case.

  3. In doubt, you can ever place him in perpetual prison, even investigating to have final proofs of innocence (in this case, liberting him) or guilt (in this case, doing what law demands).

    That kind of oh-I'm-so-glad-Jesus-saved-me hyphocrates show burd and rip apart their Bibles, as that said in Commendments: "Thou sall not murder" (Ex 20:13, Dt 5:17). Anyone that could be with: "But they sinned first" could be remembered that if he kills, he goes the same as the guilty,

  4. Well sure the life of an innocent human being is important but what about the legal principle of Finality?

    “Better ten actually innocent men are executed than to forbid the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial.”
    – Justice Antonin Scalia (attributed)

  5. Yours is not a fair summary of Justice Scalia’s opinion in this case.

    A fairer summary might be:

    1. There is no doubt about Davis’ conviction, the evidence against it having already been adequately considered.

    2. If there were doubt, referring the case to the District Court would still be pointless, since it is powerless to take any action.

    Justice Scalia’s opinion might well be totally unreasonable, but it is not helpful to characterise the opinion as saying that Davis’ execution must go ahead ‘even if he can show he is innocent’. That is the opposite of what it says, and by arguing against a straw man you will distort the debate and weaken your own case.

  6. In doubt, you can ever place him in perpetual prison, even investigating to have final proofs of innocence (in this case, liberting him) or guilt (in this case, doing what law demands).

    That kind of oh-I’m-so-glad-Jesus-saved-me hyphocrates show burd and rip apart their Bibles, as that said in Commendments: “Thou sall not murder” (Ex 20:13, Dt 5:17). Anyone that could be with: “But they sinned first” could be remembered that if he kills, he goes the same as the guilty,

  7. When will you three death penalty supporters learn to stop badgering Troy Davis' case and treat him as if he were a murderer?!

  8. When will you three death penalty supporters learn to stop badgering Troy Davis’ case and treat him as if he were a murderer?!