As the world watched the controversy over Troy Davis’s execution in Georgia last week, there was much debate over the necessity and morality of capital punishment. Davis was convicted of murdering an off-duty police officer in 1989, but his guilt was seriously in question. In a justice system full of imperfections, questions and doubts, it’s difficult to agree with the court’s irreversible decision. The death penalty is not a just way to punish a crime and should be abolished in the United States.
The certainty of a conviction in the U.S. legal system can almost never be guaranteed. In any trial, there’s always potential for doubt regarding an individual’s guilt. In Davis’s trial, witnesses recanted their statements, jurors expressed doubts, a weapon was never found and DNA evidence was not available, but a man was still sentenced to death. The responsibilities of higher courts and appellate review are to verify a sentencing beyond a reasonable doubt and to assess the legitimacy of a trial. However, these processes don’t ensure the correct sentencing, which is why the finality of capital punishment is so troubling.
The Davis trial lacked reliable physical evidence — mainly a murder weapon. The case relied predominantly on eyewitness testimony, which was revealed to be questionable at best after the trial. Seven of the nine non-police witnesses recanted their testimony, and many of the witnesses said police coerced them to implicate Davis. Confident eyewitness testimony is becoming less trustworthy in legal proceedings, and this type of evidence should be considered insufficient when a court is deciding whether or not to put a person to death. In the U.S., 75 percent of convictions in cases that were overturned with DNA evidence had previously relied on eyewitness testimony as the main source of evidence.
Apart from the unreliability of eyewitnesses, the U.S. legal system has its fair share of problems. Poorer criminals often receive inferior legal counsel and harsher penalties than wealthier ones. Additionally, issues of race often affect decisions in the courtroom. Multiple studies have shown that black defendants receive harsher punishment than whites, and when a case involves the murder of a minority, the defendants tend to receive lighter sentences. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 76 percent of death row inmates murdered white victims, and only 14 percent murdered black victims, even though whites account for 50 percent of murder victims. Clearly, the prejudices and injustices of society translate into the legal system.
It is also a misconception that it’s more expensive to incarcerate a person for life than to execute him or her. This is factually incorrect. The California legal system would save more than $100 million per year if it abolished the death penalty. Currently, California taxpayers pay about $114 million per year toward inmates. On the contrary, taxpayers spend upwards of $250 million for every execution the state carries out, mainly because of the additional time and resources required. A sentence of life in prison still undergoes an extensive trial and appeals process, but is drastically less costly.
The Davis case shows how even a broken system can put a man to death. But the death penalty should be abolished, even in the most certain of cases. It’s a vestigial remnant of a system born not from justice, but from revenge. More and more countries are abolishing the death penalty because of inherent flaws of criminal justice systems and its inhumane nature. One-hundred thirty-nine countries no longer have a death penalty, and in 2010 the U.S. ranked fifth in number of criminals executed — behind China, North Korea, Iran and Yemen. The globe is moving in a more humanitarian direction, and the United States should do the same. The sooner this happens, the better.