Troy Davis Has Been Executed

The death penalty has been abolished in most of the developed world, and Troy Davis has been executed.


On the Execution of Troy Davis

Norman Markowitz

Troy Davis has been executed.  The death penalty has been abolished in most of the developed world, and Troy Davis has been executed.  A former President and Governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter,  opposed the execution  and Troy Davis has been executed.  A former director of the FBI, William Sessions  (and as an historian I do not think that this has ever happened before) opposed the execution, and Troy Davis has been executed.  What can we make of this and what can we do about it?

A student at Rutgers asked me yesterday if signing petitions, demonstrating, did any good  and really changed things.  I told her truthfully that those with power care only about their power and their image; but those petitions, demonstrations, marches sit ins, while many battles are lost, is really the only possible way to fight and ultimately win victories.  

Ironically, I had recently dealt with the Rosenberg case, a political show trial in which a world movement to prevent the  executions was thwarted at the very end by a Supreme Court pressured by the Eisenhower administration, which saw the commutation of death sentences without a confession and the “naming of names” as a “Communist victory.”  

Of course the issues were different---the execution of Troy Davis which the Supreme Court in the last few hours refused to stay  was an “ordinary execution” of an African-American man in the state of Georgia, where slavery and segregation reigned from the seventeenth century to the end of the 1960s.

No one wanted to make a political point with it.  The points had already been made.

First, however much the death penalty is condemned through the world and through the United States, it will continue tobe flaunted from Texas to Florida, used as political capital by politicians like Rick Perry and George W. Bush.  However many studies there were that showed that the death penalty  was in its disproportional application to African-Americans a direct descendant of slavery and segregation, that would simply be ignored.

The prosecutor in the case issued a statement that the execution showed that the U.S. was a “civilized” nation with courts of law where issues would not be decided on street corners.  Was this man a time traveler from the Georgia of 1850 or 1950?  

Conservative law professors while not  necessarily endorsing the death penalty contended that the trial had been fair and the various appeal denials fair.  

This means that the dubious witnesses who testified against Davis in the original trial were to be believed and their subsequent recantations for plausible reasons were not to be believed.  That the lack of any forensic evidence in an age when forensic evidence trumps everything in courtrooms was of no importance.  That one of the two remaining witnesses against Troy Davis who did not recant was in theory of the defense the probable  guilty man was also of no importance.

All  this evidence of fact, context, history, sociology,  has nothing to do with precedent, procedure, support for hierarchy and authority in law—the kind of 19th century law which was “blind” to everything except what it was expectedto do.

In  the 20th century, “legal realism” or the progressive theory of law associated with Louis Brandeis, Hugo Black, Thurgood Marshall and many others challenged and helped to change both law and the legal system, ending segregation, protecting the  amendment rights of those accused of crimes, even for a brief time in the 1970s ending capital punishment in the U.S. as an example of cruel and unusual punishment barred by the constitution.  But these changes have been undermined by a far-reaching rightwing anti-civil liberties and anti-civil rights backlash against them, a backlash which the judicial appointments of Richard Nixon and especially Ronald Reagan and the father and son Bush Presidents has extended through the federal judiciary.  At the state level,  both judicial appointments and appointments to institutions like the Georgia Clemency Board which denied Troy Davis last petition yesterday have if anything been worse.

Nothing can be done for Troy Davis now.  But a Supreme Court majority, which even with the present 5-4 rightwing majority is certainly a possible in the near future, can end the right of states to impose the death penalty and  declare the death penalty itself to be, as cruel and unusual punishment, unconstitutional at any level.  

And we can and must demand this of  our elected officials at all levels, but the case must live on, as did the Sacco-Vanzetti and Rosenberg political show trials and the “acquittals” of the murderers of Emit Till, Medgar Evers, and other African-American victims of racist atrocities, which were also at the time defended as examples of a “civilized society” with courts of law which would not surrender to “ mob rule.”  

What happened yesterday must be stopped and stopped permanently from happening again.

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