Troy Davis and Lawrence Brewer were at the centre of two very different death penalty cases this week: one the victim of a miscarriage of justice, the other a callous murderer. Here's why both men should both still be alive.
At 11:08pm local time, September 21, Twenty-two years after his arrest, following a three-hour delay while the Supreme Court reviewed and dismissed his fourth appeal for clemency, Troy Anthony Davis is pronounced dead after receiving a lethal injection, executed by the State of Georgia.
Earlier, at 6:21pm local time, with all of his appeals to the courts exhausted, thirteen years after his arrest, Lawrence Russell Brewer is pronounced dead by the same lethal injection, executed by the State of Texas.
Davis, an African American, was convicted of murdering a white off-duty Georgia police officer, Mark MacPhail, in 1991. MacPhail was working as a security guard at a Burger King when he tried to intervene in an argument between a group of men in the car park. He died instantly, shot in the heart and head.
Seven of the nine original witnesses – on which the case against Davis was built entirely – eventually recanted their testimony, stating they were pressured by police into testifying and signing statements. Some were even found to be illiterate. No gun was ever found and there was no DNA evidence against Davis. Sylvester Coles is one of the two witnesses that did not recant. According to Davis’ defence, Coles is the principle alternative suspect, with nine individuals signing affidavits stating he was the gunman.
Before his execution, Davis declined to have a final meal or sedatives. He also maintained his innocence, using his finals words to tell the MacPhail family: “I am sorry for your loss. I did not take your son, father, brother. I did not have a gun.”
Instead of taking him home, as they said they would, they drove him to a remote county road, beat him unconscious and pissed on him. They chained him to their truck by the ankles and dragged him for three miles over a jagged, asphalt road.
Brewer, a white supremacist, was convicted of murdering African American James Byrd Jr. in 1998. Brewer and two other men offered Byrd a lift in a pickup truck. Instead of taking him home, as they said they would, they drove him to a remote county road, beat him unconscious and pissed on him. They chained him to their truck by the ankles and dragged him for three miles over a jagged, asphalt road. Forensic evidence shows Byrd regained conciseness, attempting to hold his head up while being hauled to his death; eventually hitting a concrete drainage channel, where his head and right arm were severed from his body.
Brewer said he participated in the assault on Byrd, but had “nothing to do with the killing as far as dragging him or driving the truck or anything.” Unwavering witness testimony and DNA tests, which found Byrd’s blood on Brewer and his accomplices, proved otherwise.
For his final meal, Brewer ordered two chicken fried steaks, a triple bacon cheeseburger, a bowl of fried okra, a cheese omelette, fajitas, pizza and peanut butter fudge with crushed peanuts. Letters written in prison boasted he had “accomplished more than others as far as being recorded in history.” To one of his accomplices, he wrote: “I do believe we are bigger stars, or shall I say hero of the day, than what we ever expected. A life sentence would not do us justice.”
The execution of Troy Davis has reignited the death penalty debate on a global scale; Lawrence Brewer – for all his delusions of grandeur – is a footnote in the history of capital punishment. I outlined why the death penalty is financially, legally, practically and morally wrong in this article from a few months ago. Davis and Brewer are both cases in point.
Brewer, on the other hand, is a pro-death penalty group’s blood-thirsty dream: a murderer of the most despicable kind, sociopathic and remorseless. But his death will not act as a deterrent to others, in the way they purport it will.
With Davis, we witnessed how shamefully erroneous the American criminal justice system is: institutionally racist – you are twice as likely to be sentenced to death if you are black; Deep South trial lawyers scandalously underpaid and overworked – as little as $1,000, often for thousands of hours work; ubiquitous, prejudicial media coverage making it impossible to consider jurors truly unbiased; bureaucracy that prevents new evidence being presented once the death penalty has been sentenced.
Since 1973, the US has released 139 death row prisoners after discovering their innocence. Even Davis’ most vehement critics must wonder if he should have added to that figure.
Brewer’s case was different. It was built on irrefutable evidence, cut-and-dried from the outset. Even with the most expensive lawyers, the most unbiased jurors and an appeal process completely free of procedural complexities, it’s hard to imagine him receiving anything but a guilty verdict. His crime was abhorrent, cowardly and beneath contempt. But he should still be alive today.
Davis is a textbook case for anti-death penalty supporters to cite: a man executed despite a prosecution with no physical evidence of his guilt. Even if he was guilty, this man sat in limbo for two decades. He was minutes away from death on three occasions only to be given a stay of execution each time – the Georgia Parole Board voting 3-2 against him at the fourth appeal. This is nothing short of torture; barbaric, inhumane torture resulting in State sanctioned murder.
And while it’s impossible to show the same sympathy towards Brewer, the outcome was equally wrong, just as inhumane. It was a vengeful conclusion to a loathsome saga.
Brewer, on the other hand, is a pro-death penalty group’s blood-thirsty dream: a murderer of the most despicable kind, sociopathic and remorseless. But his death will not act as a deterrent to others, in the way they purport it will. Nor was it a punishment fitting of the crime; his death was an act of revenge, showing an inherently uncivilised society in which murder, instead of being condemned in all its forms, is approved by men in suites, in air-conditioned offices.
The vigil for Davis held by the people of Georgia proved they do not want the death penalty. And while it’s impossible to show the same sympathy towards Brewer, the outcome was equally wrong, just as inhumane. It was a vengeful conclusion to a loathsome saga.
Hopefully, the Davis case will act as a catalyst to the abolition of the death penalty worldwide – proving, unequivocally, why it should never return to the UK. But Brewer’s name – and the names of all those executed before him – should forever remind us of dark days in human history; savage days when we committed atrocious acts in the name of some false justice, making us no better than than the criminals we were supposed to be condemning.
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