"We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are." Anais Nin
One's opinion on the death penalty is rarely a product of deep thought or critical examination. Thankfully, not many of us have been touched by murder or imprisonment or the capital justice system. I hope not, anyway. I have been more than touched by all three. But for most, it takes a tragedy like that of of Troy Davis to make it personal, to cause both his supporters, and those who wished his death, to actually ponder the morality, mechanics and process that we use in judicially sanctioned killing.
When the subject of the death penalty appears in polls or casual conversations, people are usually quick to offer opinion. The response, yay, nay or I don't know, is rarely based upon personal knowledge or experience. It is visceral, i.e. emotional or instinctive. People who support the death penalty often find it emotionally satisfying--it's natural to wish revenge against someone or something that hurts one. You hurt me, I'll hurt you back. People who oppose capital punishment find many reasons, but I believe a root factor is a sense of empathy for the condemned. That could be me, what if I am innocent, killing is repugnant.
Troy Davis' life and death had power, value and meaning. It opened a window and let people peer in to the charnel house--the system that judges and executes human beings exists for the most part in a dusty, hidden labyrinth that few witness or examine. That pesronalization awakened many, it created more words and thought about the death penalty than I have ever witnessed here, on this web site. It caused people to carry signs and go to Georgia's death house and sign petitions. Most importantly, it made people examine why they believed in or opposed the ultimate punishment.
I am a former death penalty defender. I had to retire in no small part because it ruined my health. I find it difficult to even write about the subject, because I know it so well and have been so deep inside the belly of this particular beast, the capital punishment system. But watching Troy Davis fight his final battle awoke so many ghosts and touched so many wounds, I find I can only treat them by writing about it.
He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
I have maintained a vigil in the death house as the hours melted away towards a killing. I have argued against executions to courts, television cameras and clemency boards. I have watched little bands of lawyers and citizens battle the death machine with elan and hopeless courage. I have been injured by the fight, I am a walking wounded. Every one of us has been scarred in this war. Few guess the costs of defending the condemned.
When acquaintances asked the inevitable question, “how can you defend those people?” the answer was easy: I fight for Life. I am trying to keep one person alive. That's much easier, I think, than expending all my energy and professional expertise to kill someone, regardless of "how much he needs killin'."
I have sat with the murder victim's family and friends and I have shared their pain, anger and helplessness. I understand why they wish to kill the person who caused them this unbelievable pain and heartbreak. I have had a best friend and a relative die by murder. I know the white-hot rage that the survivors feel when a loved one's life ends unnaturally, violently. On the other side, I have sat with a condemned man, minutes before his death, helpless to do more to stop his unnatural death. I have spoken to his family and shared their pain at losing a loved one. The entire event, from the murder to the execution, is a drawn out torture, more vile and cruel than you can imagine. And all the more so because it is all man-made and avoidable.
Death penalty defense is a lonely avocation. It takes courage to stand against all society and proclaim that a vile, hated criminal deserves to live. I have often read about the last brave attempts of those rare heroes, capital defenders, to stop a killing that was decreed by the highest government authorities and usually applauded by the media and the public. I have been awed by the brilliant arguments and Herculean efforts the lawyers made trying to save their clients. When I started defending the condemned I had wondered how I would hold up in the final battles.
The reality crushed my naïve expectations. It is like riding a tsunami while wearing a blindfold. Political currents surge and twist from every direction. Miracles occur, tantalizing us with hope, then the floor drops away. Secret deals are brokered between powerful men and women, plots are fomented. My worst paranoid suspicions have been proven true, but at the same time I have witnessed almost mystical salvation.
I advocated for the powerless, and I have contempt for those who abuse power. I do not pretend to be without opinion or neutral, I believe a man-made system will be less than perfect, and as such it cannot hope to make the godlike decision of who deserves to live or die. Perhaps I am wrong, but I am convinced.
Many claim that the death penalty in America is a broken system. To paraphrase an old blues axiom, it is not broke, but badly bent. It is an ancient weapon, worn and cumbersome but still capable of mayhem. I liken it to a crusty Panzer tank resurrected from a European killing field. It clanks and moans and breaks down, but it is still able to creep along in a fog of dust and diesel smoke. A legion of mechanics help it along–judges and prosecutors, police, the media. They repair the worn treads, stoke its engine with the fuel of revenge and arm it with a single deadly shell aimed at a lone victim. I have worked with a small guerrilla band of defenders that fights tank by tank, desperately attempting to slow or prevent it from firing its missile: the needle of lethal injection. Occasionally we succeed. More often we lose, watching helplessly as the machine inflicts another death on someone for whom we are responsible, someone to whom we are close.
My trips to “death watch,” the sepulchral area of the prison that houses the death chamber and holds the condemned for three days before his passage, left me reeling. The monstrous pageant that leads to death is laden with formality and antiseptic rules that barely hide the pagan nature of the ritual. I felt trapped in a lurid nightmare, helpless and panicked. I learned that despite the rules and high legal language, the death penalty is a base, primitive affair.
This is what I know: Whether or not there is a God, the judgment of who lives or dies is godlike and not one that can be reliably made by man or woman. Judges and juries are human. They are swayed by passions and emotions. Prosecutors and defenders are also human. They make mistakes, and mistakes are deadly. The politicians who prop up the death system for personal gain and power may be less than human. Not a single one of us possesses the godlike objectivity and lack of bias that is required for pure justice. Some may come close, but close is not enough when the ultimate decision is whether to let another live or cause his death.
You may think you support the death penalty, but if you spend hours, days, years with the condemned you will discover they are usually damaged, sick people who may not be capable of functioning in society, but who still have worth and at least a spark of humanity. And if you spend time with victim's survivors, you will discover that the system cares little for their pain and keeps them locked in rage and powerlessness, unable to go through the stages of grief and reach some level of acceptance for their hideous loss.
Everyone loses. And yes, everyone is Troy Davis. Until this barbaric system ends and we realize that prison is as effective and as just a punishment as we mere humans are capable of creating, our hands are bloodied and responsible.