We were dismayed, disheartened, and deeply disappointed when the state of Georgia executed Troy Davis last week. Up until the very end, we held out hope because we believed in the American justice system. We hoped and believed that compassion and justice would prevail. We hoped and believed that, in a case riddled with flaws—where seven out of nine witnesses recanted their testimony, where a former U.S. president and a former director of the FBI were calling for clemency, where 630,000 Americans signed petitions asking Georgia not to execute—the parole board would intervene, that the Supreme Court would hear the case, or that the Governor would, at the very least, commute the death penalty. We could not bring ourselves to believe that our country would murder someone who was quite possibly innocent, and do so while the whole world was watching. Execution is too pretty a word for what happened to Troy Davis. When there was so much doubt as to his guilt, his death was nothing short of state-sanctioned murder.
But perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised when, despite massive evidence of “reasonable doubt,” Troy Davis was killed last week. After all, in spite of all the media attention focused on him, Troy Davis’ case wasn’t isolated. The Innocence Project has freed 17 death row inmates from 11 states after proving with DNA evidence that they were actually innocent. Unfortunately, stories like Davis’ are all too common.
We have never really understood why the state kills people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong. But even for those who believe in the concept of capital punishment, Troy Davis’ case highlights the profound dangers of allowing the government to end lives. There are no mulligans with executions. If the state realizes that it has wrongfully incarcerated someone, it can free them from jail and offer financial compensation. But once the poison has been injected, there is no turning back. Capital punishment certainly has no rehabilitative value—and studies show that it has no deterrence value, either. State-sponsored killings are vengeance, pure and simple. It is an inconvenient truth that sometimes vengeance is carried out against the innocent. In the United States today, Lady Justice is not blind. Lady Justice sees race, and Lady Justice sees class. According to a study at the University of North Carolina, a black defendant convicted of killing a white victim (like Troy Davis) is more than three times as likely to be sentenced to death as a white defendant convicted of killing a black victim. And we all know that the quality of lawyer that a defendant can afford often makes a big difference in the outcome.
Hundreds of students came together last week in a vigil and rally after Troy Davis was killed. There is nothing that we can do now for Troy Davis. But as he himself said, his struggle has always been about more than just him and it did not end when he was silenced late last Wednesday night. It is now up to us to carry the crusade against injustice. It is now up to us to improve the American criminal justice system. It is now up to us to end the death penalty. The Columbia Democrats urge all Columbia students who care about justice to unite with us in calling for the United States to join the community of civilized nations in banning this barbaric process.
The author is a Columbia College junior majoring in political science. This op-ed is written on behalf of the Executive Board of the Columbia University Democrats.