Thursday, September 22, 2011

A tale of two executions

Two men were murdered last night.

One was killed under the watchful eye of people around the country and around the world. The other was killed with nary a soul watching.

The State of Georgia murdered an innocent man. The State of Texas killed a guilty man.

By now we all know the tragic story of Troy Davis. Last night we watched as the killing hour drew near and gasped when the execution was put on hold. We were hopeful that justice would prevail and that new questions would be raised about who killed Mark MacPhail in Savannah back in 1989. We sat in stunned silence as word came down that the U.S. Supreme Court denied Mr. Davis' request for a stay of execution and we watched in horror as Mr. Davis was murdered.

But in the Piney Woods of Texas, Lawrence Brewer was also a victim of the death machine. Mr. Brewer wasn't a nice person. He was a convicted felon. He was a member of a KKK-like group. He participated in the beating and murder of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas - a crime that sickened the public. He had exhausted his appeals and went to his death with a tear in his eye.

It's easy to be sympathetic to the cause of Troy Davis. There is nothing that betrays our sense of justice more than the state-sponsored murder of an innocent man. But let's face it, the vast majority of inmates on death row across this country are guilty. It's harder t mobilize the masses to fight to save the life of a murderer.

The State of Georgia wasn't justified in killing Troy Davis. Yes, a jury convicted him of Mr. MacPhail's murder. But there was no physical evidence linking Mr. Davis to the murder. The murder weapon was never recovered. Seven of the nine non-law enforcement witnesses recanted their trial testimony. Yet neither the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole nor the Georgia Supreme Court nor the U.S. Supreme Court thought that was enough to raise enough doubt to halt the execution.

We accept a legal system in which the Nine Wearing Robes can change the established law of the land with just five votes, precedence and stare decisis be damned. But we can't accept that juries might get it wrong or that witnesses might reconsider their testimony.

Those of us who stand beside criminal defendants also know that few of our clients are innocent. For most of our clients, it's more a question of whether the prosecutor can prove the allegations. We fight just as hard for the person who admits guilt as we do for the person who proclaims his innocence. That's what the Constitution requires. It's through fighting for the most unworthy and unloved clients that we fortify the rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights.

It's in fighting to save the life of Lawrence Russell that our fight to abolish the death penalty will succeed. It's when we convince the public that state-sponsored murder is the most tyrannical act a government can carry out.

I'm saddened by the deaths of Mr. Davis and Mr. Russell. I'm angry about it. I will take that anger and channel it. I will channel it the next time I stand in front of a jury asking them to find my client not guilty. I will channel it the next time I reject a plea offer from the state. I will channel it the next time I go before a judge and demand that a case be dismissed.

It's time to get back to work.

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