Before the Davis Execution Takes Place

This is not my normal beat, and I have no expertise or special standing to comment on the case.

But before the executioner makes this matter moot about four hours from now, in my "special standing" as a human being and as an American, I wanted to say these things:

1) Please read Andrew Cohen's masterful explanation of the philosophies, practicalities, and politics of modern capital punishment. It is long but truly important, and among other things it clarifies why use of the death penalty nationwide has been declining, even as it has been on the rise in the South. (Since 1976, there have been four times as many executions in the South as in the rest of the country combined. Texas alone has accounted for nearly 40% of all U.S. executions in that period; together with Virginia, it accounts for almost half. Texas executed 17 last year; California, with more people and more crimes, has executed a total of 13 since 1976.)

One crucial part of Cohen's argument is that the kind of willful over-reach we see from the Georgia authorities in the Troy Davis case will eventually turn the national tide against the death penalty as a whole. He argues that the 1976 Supreme Court ruling making the death penalty permissible again was based on the faith that it would be carried out with utmost sober-minded care, even reluctance, and that operationally its workings would seem to be "fair."

That's quite obviously not how things seem about the death penalty in general, with the partisan whoops at the mere mention of executions and the comments from public officials (it's not just Rick Perry) that they haven't lost a moment's sleep about even some obviously tainted cases. It's also not how things seem in the Troy Davis case, in which most of the original witnesses have changed their stories and numerous non-softies including Ronald Reagan's appointee as director of the FBI have asked the state of Georgia not to take the irreversible step of putting him to death. As Cohen says of Davis:

>>Whether the trial witnesses against him were lying then or are lying now, by fighting against his requested relief Georgia is saying that its interest in the finality of its capital judgments is more important than the accuracy of its capital verdicts.... In their zeal to make good on cynical campaign promises to be "tough on crime," in their pursuit of vengeance on behalf of grieving families, in their reckless disregard for the racial realities of capital punishment, elected or appointed proponents of the death penalty are in the process of ruining the mandate the Supreme Court gave them 35 years ago.<<

There is a lot more; I will simply say, please read Cohen's essay during the next few hours. It probably won't make a difference in Davis's case, but it is an important analysis of a national shame.

2) Please also read Ta-Nehisi Coates's account today of another murder case in the South, and how the death penalty may or may not be applied. Also from our site, Emily Hauser and Clive Crook.
3) OK, back to Cohen. He makes a point that can't be emphasized often enough. The death penalty debate is not exclusively or even mainly about the condemned people themselves, including those who are indisputably guilty. It is about us. Cohen writes about Duane Buck of Texas. No one disputes that he is a killer, but the US Supreme Court this week stayed his execution because of racial bias in the sentencing process. Cohen says:

>>Why should I care about the procedural technicalities of this guy's sentencing case when his guilt is not in doubt? Since he's guilty of murder, how fair does his legal treatment really need to be? People of all political stripes asked the same questions....The guy did it. He is getting more justice than he gave to his victims.

That last part is true. Of course, defendants like Duane Buck get more justice than their victims. That's the whole point of our criminal justice system -- and of the rule of law. That's why we outlaw lynching, why angry mobs can't storm jailhouses, and why we have judges. It's why we have a Constitution. In America, we aim to give the guilty more justice than they deserve. We do so because of how that reflects upon us, not upon how it reflects upon the guilty. And when we fail to do so it says more about us than it does about the condemned.<<
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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