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The Troy Davis Controversy … And A Call To Rethink the Death Penalty

This past Saturday, more than 1,000 people gathered in Savannah. Georgia to attend the funeral of Troy Davis – who, after 20 years on death row and four years of extraordinary appeals, was executed on September 21.  Since his execution, the politics of the death penalty – and public outcry over capital punishment in the United States – has been the topic of much heated debate in the news media and in homes and offices throughout the country.  With millions of supporters who believe that the state wrongfully executed Troy Davis, and Saturday’s tremendous outpouring of support from those gathered to both remember Troy Davis and show their commitment to ending the death penalty in our country, more and more people are taking a closer look at our system… and casting serious doubts about a justice system that could have put a man many people believe was innocent to death.

The details of Davis’ case — and the fact that seven out of nine witnesses recanted their testimony against him – have many wondering how such incredibly flawed eyewitness testimony could be the basis for an execution.  Tragically, it may be likely that a mistake was made and a wrongful conviction may have put a man to death.  And even more tragically, it probably hasn’t been the first time – and, if the U.S. continues to utilize the death penalty in our criminal justice system, it might not be the last time, either.

The U.S. remains one of the few countries left that still uses the death penalty, and with the Troy Davis case such a shocking example of how flawed our system may be, it’s time we re-evaluate our policy. Most people feel strongly that a punishment should fit the crime.  However, our criminal justice system is fallible.  It makes mistakes.  As criminal defense attorneys, we see mistakes in the process, small and large, regularly.  It’s a sobering fact that more than 300 people on death row have been exonerated by evidence that they were wrongly convicted.  What would have happened if those people had been put to death prior before the mistakes were identified?  How many people on death row now, and in the future, might actually be not guilty of the crimes they have been convicted of, and could be exonerated if only given a chance?  With the death penalty, there are no second chances – when an error is made, it’s final.  Perhaps the public outcry over what happened to Troy Davis will actually help to bring about a change in our system.

It’s clear that crimes shouldn’t go unpunished, and, as former prosecutors, we understand the concerns of crime victims and their families and the societal need for a system that metes out punishments for transgressions. However, with the Troy Davis case still fresh in all of our minds, let’s rethink whether the death penalty is something that makes our country proud, and let’s do it before another life is lost … and another potentially innocent person is put to death.

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