When lynching passes for “justice”

Last night, the world witnessed a modern-day judicially sanctioned lynching.

Troy Davis was executed last night at 11:08 local time, under heavy protest, in the state of Georgia, by a private contracting corporation that specializes in the “care” of prison inmates. (They are said to be currently hiring paramedics and nurses; one wonders for what ghoulish tasks! They are also no strangers to legal investigation of their “services”; interesting.) For a cool $13,000 US, this corporation saw to it that he was strapped motionless to a gurney (like the one in the photo above), with intravenous lines running in both arms, to be injected first with a sedative, and then with the same drugs used to euthanize dogs and cats at the pound.

His last words to his accusers were “I’d like to address the MacPhail family. Let you know, despite the situation you are in, I’m not the one who personally killed your son, your father, your brother. I am innocent.” And there is much evidence to back them up.

They say justice delayed is justice denied, but there’s more than one way to deny justice. In this case, even with more than four hours passing between the scheduled execution of Troy Davis and the final completion of the atrocity, there was no delay of justice, but merely a brief stay of a terrible, state-mandated crime. Justice — the chance for a new trial, the opportunity to present fresh evidence, and to discard old false testimonies — was denied to Troy in the hour the punishment fell for a crime he did not commit.

Don’t get the idea that I’m soft on crime. I reviled Tim McVeigh and John Gacy and Ted Bundy, knowing full well that all of them were guilty as charged, and even thought that Bundy’s execution was one of the few that truly merited carrying out. There was no redeeming him. Bundy was an escape artist and misogynist extraordinaire; he was an ongoing danger to society in general, and young women in particular. He bragged that his actual death toll was in the triple digits, and it’s quite possible that he wasn’t exaggerating; there are still a lot of cold missing-persons cases all over the Pacific Northwest, and many of the pictures look like the sort of girls Bundy targeted. He had a definite “type”, and no qualms about seeking such girls out, raping and killing them, and then going on to sexually abuse their corpses. To get rid of him was the only way to make sure he wouldn’t get out and do it again.

I felt, I confess, a definite relief when Ted had his date with Old Sparky; he was now one less horror for us living ladies to fear. (He was a menace to Canada, too; he’s said to have left a trail of unidentified victims in British Columbia, though nothing was ever definitely tied to him.) But even so, I didn’t smile or rejoice. It was merely the final, dreary chapter of a story that should never have begun. At least 36 families out there were, and remain to this day, bereft of a daughter, and getting rid of him wasn’t going to bring those girls back.

Nor, I have come to realize, is execution any serious way of addressing the issues of violent crimes arising from sexism (Bundy), homophobia (Gacy) or racist fascism (McVeigh). It may get rid of an individual killer, but it does not touch on what stops killers in advance — namely, denying them not only the means and the opportunity to kill, but even the motive. Prevention is better than cure, and for all the millions society has spent on executing convicted criminals, it has scrimped on the more critical need to prevent crime and give everyone a more secure world to live in. Apparently it’s more “tough on crime” to make a big show of trials and punishments than it is to create a just society, where crime is rare to nonexistent because no one feels like committing any. We’re expected to work like dogs, to struggle like dogs, to obey like dogs. No wonder Troy Davis was sentenced to die like a dog!

I can think of no better illustration of that mentality than this ballad from a more barbaric time in our past, posted today by a Facebook buddy:

By Pierre Berton

In Goderich town
The Sun abates
… December is coming
And everyone waits:
In a small, dark room
On a small, hard bed
Lies a small, pale boy
Who is not quite dead.

The cell is lonely
The cell is cold
October is young
But the boy is old;
Too old to cringe
And too old to cry
Though young —
But never too young to die.

It’s true enough
That we cannot brag
Of a national anthem
Or a national flag
And though our Vision
Is still in doubt
At last we’ve something to boast about:
We’ve a national law
In the name of the Queen
To hang a child
Who is just fourteen.

The law is clear:
It says we must
And in this country
The law is just
Sing heigh! Sing ho!
For justice blind
Makes no distinction
Of any kind;
Makes no allowances for sex or years,
A judge’s feelings, a mother’s tears;
Makes no allowances for age or youth
Just eye for eye and tooth for tooth
Tooth for tooth and eye for eye:
A child does murder
A child must die.

Don’t fret … don’t worry …
No need to cry
We’ll only pretend he’s going to die;
We’re going to reprieve him
By and by.

We’re going to reprieve him
(We always do),
But it wouldn’t be fair
If we told him, too
So we’ll keep the secret
As long as we can
And hope that he’ll take it
Like a man.

And when we’ve told him
It’s just “pretend”
And he won’t be strung
At a noose’s end,
We’ll send him away
And, like as not
Put him in prison
And let him rot.

The jury said “mercy”
And we agree —
O, merciful jury:
You and me.

Oh death can come
And death can go
Some deaths are sudden
And some are slow;
In a small cold cell
In October mild
Death comes each day
To a frightened child.

So muffle the drums and beat them slow,
Mute the strings and play them low,
Sing a lament and sing it well,
But not for the boy in the cold, dark cell,
Not for the parents, trembling-lipped,
Not for the judge who followed the script;
Save your prayers for the righteous ghouls
In that Higher Court who write the rules
For judge and jury and hangman too:
The Court composed of me and you.

In Goderich town
The trees turn red
The limbs go bare
As their leaves are bled
And the days tick by
As the sky turns lead
For the small, scared boy
On the small, stark bed
A fourteen-year-old
Who is not quite dead.

That “small, scared boy” was Steven Truscott, who was accused and convicted of the murder of a twelve-year-old schoolfriend. He was accused on the basis that he was the last person seen with Lynne Harper while she was still alive. She was found dead three days later, with no killer in sight. Steven Truscott was sentenced to hang on no more evidence than that he was seen giving his friend a lift on his bike, just before she disappeared.

When the death penalty was abolished in Canada, Steven Truscott’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. But it was still wrong. He spent decades maintaining his innocence, living under a pseudonym, and struggling for a new trial, one that would clear his name and free him. Eventually he got it, but for a price. He grew to adulthood behind penitentiary bars. That world is no place for an innocent boy.

It’s no world for an innocent man, either.

But Troy Davis spent 22 years on Death Row in Georgia. Like Steven Truscott, he maintained his innocence to the end. But unlike Steven Truscott, Troy Davis was not to be spared by a change in the laws, or the passage of time enabling him to seek retrial. The law in Georgia is clear: If you’re convicted of killing a cop, you get the death penalty. No exceptions. Not even if you’re demonstrably innocent. All that matters, as Antonin Scalia said, is the conviction. Even the highest court in the land won’t argue for clemency or a new trial if the conviction stands. And they will not allow it to fall, either. It speaks volumes as to the cruelty and cowardice of the US justice system, which has yet to fully evolve beyond capital punishment, as Canada’s has done.

And yet, Canada has much to teach our neighbor to the south. Think of David Milgaard. Or Donald Marshall. Or Guy Paul Morin. All three wrongly convicted. All three would have spent their lives in prison if not for those who advocated tirelessly on their behalf, getting their convictions overturned, seeking retrial and exoneration, publicly clearing their names.

And they were not the only ones; there are so many cases of probable wrongful conviction in this country that there is an organization to help them. It used to be headed up by Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, also a former wrongful convict. A black man who, like Troy Davis, appears to have been convicted mainly on the basis of his color — and false testimonies.

The fact that we need such organizations is shameful; it is an indictment of the deep streak of criminality in North American society. But they are our best hope of abolishing what should be a rare, or better nonexistent, punishment. It behooves us to get behind them. It shouldn’t be up to them alone to wear away the monolith of injustice, drop by slow, slow drop.

After all, justice delayed is justice denied. And so is yet another judicially sanctioned lynching.

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