Troy Davis is scheduled to be executed in Georgia at 7:00 pm today for the killing of a Savannah police officer in 1989. Virtually everything about his case screams “miscarriage of justice”. Seven of nine eyewitnesses recanted their testimony; six of those claimed that the police coerced them to testify. There is no forensic evidence linking Mr. Davis to the crime. He was convicted solely on the basis of eyewitness testimony. As the NYT observes, not much of anything about the eyewitness testimony was reliable:
The grievous errors in the Davis case were numerous, and many arose out of eyewitness identification. The Savannah police contaminated the memories of four witnesses by re-enacting the crime with them present so that their individual perceptions were turned into a group one. The police showed some of the witnesses Mr. Davis’s photograph even before the lineup. His lineup picture was set apart by a different background. The lineup was also administered by a police officer involved in the investigation, increasing the potential for influencing the witnesses.
Lest there be any doubt about the limited probative value of eyewitness testimony, consider the following passage from David Eagleman’s brilliant Incognito:
In one astonishing demonstration of change blindness, random pedestrians in a courtyard were stopped by an experimenter and asked for directions. At some point, as the unsuspecting subject was in the middle of explaining the directions, workmen carrying a door walked rudely right between two people. Unbeknownst to the subject, the experimenter was stealthily replaced by a confederate who had been hiding behind the door as it was carried: after the door passed, a new person was standing there. The majority of subjects continued giving directions without noticing that the person was not the same as the original one they were talking with. In other words, they were only encoding small amounts of information hitting their eyes. The rest was assumption. (from a study conducted by Simons and Levin, “Failure to detect changes to people”, end noted in original.)
We see in our mind what our brains calculate is necessary for us to see. Sometimes the picture provided by our brain is a pretty fair depiction of reality, oft-times it is nothing but an illusion. Imagine how illusory might be the brain’s images provided to the mind in the midst of watching another man being gunned down, especially considering that an “eyewitness” necessarily had to be within pistol shot range to have any hope of getting a decent view.
But that’s essentially what convicted Mr. Davis. Nevermind the utter barbarity of “an eye for an eye” justice. Without anything more than eyewitness testimony, how is there any way beyond a reasonable doubt to know what transpired the evening of the officer’s death? And if the state is to get itself bloody in exacting vengeance, shouldn’t the standard for guilt be set higher than just “beyond a reasonable doubt”? If the state is doing the killing, shouldn’t the standard be something closer to “without any doubt” as to the culpability of the defendant? Indeed, it would be an impossibly high standard to meet, but that’s sort of the point.
Anyone that supports the death penalty must feel very confident that they won’t be hauled before the state’s courts and wrongly accused of a capital crime, which is to say, at least in the South, they must be white. White people face far smaller odds of being railroaded to death row for crimes they didn’t commit. Whites control the judicial system, so why should they fear it? Blacks, on the other hand, have every reason to fear becoming innocent scapegoats that happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. When the police set out to round up the usual suspects in a highly publicized case that they desperately need to resolve, how many in the category of “usual suspects” do you suppose are white?
If Mr. Davis is executed, it will not only be an act of barbarism. It is that, but nothing about governmental barbarism should by now be surprising. It will likely also be a miscarriage of justice. Even people who support the death penalty should object to this particular killing (and as the NYT’s piece observes, some have).