Thursday, September 22, 2011

Addressing Reasonable Doubts


The State of Georgia executed Troy Davis last night at 11:08 PM by lethal injection.  He had been convicted of killing a policeman working as a security guard 22 years ago.  To his last breath Davis continually maintained his innocence.  There seems to be no physical evidence proving he did the crime, seven of nine witnesses later recanted their testimony, saying they'd been coerced by police, and three jurors have since retracted their "guilty" verdicts. Plus another person was said to have confessed to the crime.

Thousands of people worldwide, including, Amnesty International, the Pope, former President Jimmy Carter, a former GA Supreme Court Justice,  Archbishop Desmond Tutu, 51 members of Congress, and even death penalty supporters, including former FBI Director William S. Sessions, as well as  many more called for Troy Davis to be spared the death sentence. Over 660,000 petitions were delivered calling for the Powers-That-Be to spare his life.  Around 500 protesters stood outside the prison entrance last night, waiting for a decision from the members of the Supreme Court of the United States, which refused to grant a stay of execution.[1]

In a court of law, you often hear these words:  "Innocent until proven guilty" and "Beyond a Reasonable Doubt."   There seems to be no concrete proof  that Troy Davis committed that particular crime and  more than enough strong doubts,  to suggest that this man may have been innocent.  In the end, it didn't matter.

"Justice is done", say the family of the murdered policeman.  But was it justice? 

I don't know whether Troy Davis committed the crime as charged, or whether he was, as he steadfastly maintained, for 22 years, truly innocent.  What bothers me is that someone can be put to death when grave doubts continue to remain as to his innocence, and that because of legal technicalities, possible incompetency, willful neglect, or sheer indifference important information can be and is often disregarded or suppressed.

When the decision is made to deliberately end someone's life, wouldn't it serve "justice" to make absolutely sure all questions about his/her guilt or innocence have been thoroughly addressed and/or resolved?   That facts later coming to light that contradict those presented at trial as evidence may be reason to reconsider the terms of punishment?   In the case of Troy Davis serious questions still remained.  Testimonies at trial were later recanted, some jurors' guilty verdicts retracted, report of another person confessing to the same crime for which Troy Davis was convicted.  It was decided this was not sufficient to overturn the original verdict or rescind the sentence of death.

I was once called for jury duty at a murder trial.  One of the questions they asked me, in choosing who was to be on the jury, was:  "Do you believe in the death penalty?"  A fellow prospective juror, who'd apparently been called before to serve on juries, later told me as we were exiting the building, neither of us having been chosen as jurors, "If you ever want to get out of serving on a jury at a murder trial, just tell them you're against the death penalty."  I took that to mean that people who sit on juries voting to decide whether or not a person is innocent or guilty, where the punishment may be death, are not considered good choices in a jury selection, because they would have difficulty accepting the idea that a proper punishment for killing is to then kill the killer.   An eye for an eye comes to mind. 

How powerful are words and how many meanings pop up around the word 'justice'.  Jurors are supposed to listen and observe at trial, and based on each side's presentation and argument (prosecutor and defense attorneys') decide the truth of someone's innocence or guilt.  Too much doubt results in delayed decisions; "hung juries" can result in a mistrial; mistrials can mean a criminal goes free.  But jurors are not allowed to simply raise their hand during trial and ask a question when they feel a lawyer has not asked a question of a witness that the juror believes is pertinent.  It's annoying to be told, "After everything you've heard today, you MUST come to the conclusion that ...." (meaning the particular lawyer's interpretation), etc.  Uh, no, let us make our own interpretations, please.

Only the judge can allow or suppress a particular line of inquiry.  If you've ever read trial transcripts, you can readily see sometimes, where the focus is being strategically directed (towards or away from certain areas) more for  the benefit of the jury than to actually unearth the truth, often resulting in a distorted (or skillfully projected) perception.  Some lawyers are better at jury persuasion than others.  The judge must abide by the jury's decision as to guilt or innocence but only the judge has the power to say how the convicted person is going to be punished:  "You're going to jail" or "You're going to die."

The Double Jeopardy provision of the Fifth Amendment prohibits a person from being tried twice for the same offense, unless required by the interests of justice. But even then,  the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, if I understand it correctly,  bars second and successive petitions and limits the power of federal judges to grant relief.  So there's not a whole lot of hope, even with a dedicated lawyer calling for a new investigation or massive public outcry for a reversal of the death sentence, that you will succeed.  And as we've seen with Troy Davis, even the Supreme Court can decide your case ultimately has no merit and you will lose.

It seems to me there is something terribly wrong, though, with a system that allows someone like  Luis Posada, a former CIA agent who admitted involvement in a string of bombings in 1997, and for which evidence of his role in the mid-air bombing of a Cuban airliner in 1976, killing 73 people aboard, "is strong", to go free--yet executes Troy Davis, for  killing a policeman, though the evidence against him remains questionable. For example, the statement of one witness (that Davis confessed to the crime) is accepted as an indication of guilt but when the witness later recants, it's discounted; and the testimony of another witness (declaring that someone *else* admitted to committing the crime) is disregarded based on a technicality.  That other person was never put on the stand.  I say, you say, we all say hear-say, now swear under oath that ... (except one of the witnesses, who was illiterate, was asked to sign a statement he couldn't read,  which should have made it invalid).

Both Posada and Davis were judged by a jury of peers--one was found innocent, the other guilty.  "Although he [Posada] has never been convicted for his various acts of violence, Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive has referred to him as "one of the most dangerous terrorists in recent history."  But apparently to the anti-Cuban exile community in Miami, Posada is a hero.   So, an admitted terrorist gets aquitted; a man proclaiming his innocence gets convicted and awarded the death penalty.  I keep hearing those words, "Justice and mercy for all" but in this case it sounds like "Justice and mercy for some, depending ...."  Depending on the jurors, the lawyers, the judges, the system--and of course, who you are or are not.  It is this aspect of the justice system that seems to need tweaking, in my humble opinion.

I honestly don't know whether or not Troy Davis really did what he'd been convicted of or not--my mental jury's still out on that one.  But I'm not ignorant of what sometimes happens in a courtroom vis-a-vis prosecution and defense presentations and the politics and manipulation of perception that comes into play.  Too, Judges are powerful beings: they can ship you back to your country of origin where you risk being tortured or killed, denying your request for political asylum; they can give you a second chance to turn your life around and get some help; or they can send you to be lethally disposed of.  If Troy Davis was innocent, as so many believe he was, may this injustice be righted.  May the truth some day come out, not just about this but about other past investigations still being questioned, years after the fact, for which the public still would like answers.. Beyond a reasonable doubt.  So that true justice, not revenge or payback, can be accomplished.

Just because the world is changing, getting darker and scarier by the minute, doesn't, I think, mean that we should change with it and react by ourselves becoming scarier.  Rule of law:  innocent until proven guilty. Allow all sides to be heard.  Sounds fair.  If information comes in later that radically contradicts an earlier investigation's report, examine it.  Take the time to get it right. Correct  it.  Set 'the record' straight.  The bottom line shouldn't be speed it up to get a conviction, imposing impossible-to-meet deadlines or restricting access to or sharing of information just to one-up the other side or as part of some turf war or just because you can

In a perfect world, perhaps.  I'm still in International Day of Peace mode, I guess  (yesterday was International Day of Peace). But I don't get the prevailing mindset in some quarters sometimes:  That it's okay to kill in certain circumstances, but not in others. That killers must be punished by killing them to show it is wrong to kill.  That innocent children who happen to be family members of someone "suspected" of "insurgency" in a foreign land can be sacrificed as collateral damage, so long as the bad guy gets 'taken out.'.  "Thou shalt not kill" . . . except (list the exceptions). All's fair in love and war (they say).  Drone on.   Kill or (maybe) be killed.  When in doubt, pre-empt.  Shoot first and ask questions later.  Better yet: Stop asking questions. 

Uh, I'm not gonna go there. This just in: I heard on CNN where somewhere in Mexico a drug cartel pulled up in the afternoon in front of a busy shopping area and dumped 35 dead bodies on the pavement, as a warning, I guess.   No one stopped them, apparently, or pursued, much less was able to arrest them. They've done that kind of thing before, leaving headless bodies in public, to show that they 'can'.   That's what having power does.  No one can touch you.  The word lawless floats in a bubble inside my mind.  Kind of like what they used to call frontier towns in the old West where bandits just rode in and shot people and rode out again:  lawless.  The modern version I guess is drive-by shootings, individually or in bunches, only the shooters get younger and younger.  We have laws but this still keeps happening.  But even in lawful (full of Laws) societies, and even though scores of people (thousands and thousands, to be exact) are behind bars today, justice has not solved the problem, nor is real justice necessarily a given. Define 'justice' -- shooter-type justice, or innocent-type justice.

What is one to make of the news anymore.  So many conflicting reports, misleading stories.  People still hungering for . . . the truth.  As if knowing it would change anything. But it might.  If the truth were known, "justice" could be served.  And if injustice is being intentionally ignored, allowed or perpetrated, that could be corrected.   In a perfect world.  But since we're not . . .

No reason not to not care though.  Media overload and it can all just pass over one, in one big blur, occupation here, terrorist attack there, governments in crisis, this one bankrupt, that one starving, failed schools, infrastructure crumbling, earth being raped, execution last night, news at 11.  It's enough to make you . . . tune out and stop listening.  Turn the observation meter off a bit,  redirect it.  Or go take a nap.

Not everyone's asleep, though.  Granted, even with the whole world watching, atrocities continue to happen, regularly; injustice continues. I'd hate to have to live as an empath, you know, those people who absorb and carry around the pain and suffering of the world on their backs, so to speak.  I've known people like that, who've sacrificed any sort of personal life to go help others--not just volunteer here and there or  send money, but actually leave home and go off somewhere for years, putting their lives on the line, because they care.  No naps for them.  I like that you can't stifle that kind of awareness, that even when it's mocked, defunded or physically crushed, it doesn't stop.  Maybe for some.  But not all.  Which seems a good thing to know.

As for doubting, all thinking beings do that at one time or another.  Well, most, anyway.  Sometimes you're encouraged to question things, other times you're told to just accept what is for what it is and don't trouble yourself about the details. Leave the details up to the experts.  Both sides have merit.  Troy Davis won't have to worry about things like that anymore.  In a week's time other news will fill the airwaves and the 'justice system' will plog on, everyone will go back to their everyday lives, doing whatever it is they do every day.  It is amazing to me, how many supporters Troy Davis had.  How many spoke out in his behalf, how many abhor the idea of capital punishment. 

Perhaps those laws that permit us to kill, as punishment, are more and more raising reasonable doubts as to their, well . . .  reasonableness.

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