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Capital Punishment In America: A Bankrupt System

Category : World Affairs

Against the backdrop of race and class discrimination, and judicial misconduct, death row inmate Troy Davis, after launching a series of  legal appeals that would last for 22 frustrating years, was unjustly put to death by lethal injection on September 19, 2011.  He was accused and found guilty, under highly questionable circumstances, for the murder of off-duty Savana, Georgia police officer Mark MacPhail.  Unfortunately, what happened to Mr. Davis is typical of what happens routinely to those among his social peers who often fall victim to a corrupt criminal justice system that preys upon the oppressed and socially disenfranchised.  Although Davis, like many others, became the classic victim of racial and class discrimination; and police, prosecutorial and judicial misconduct, his case became the launching pad that has enlivened a new round of debate on the legality and constitutionality of the death penalty in American society.


Racial Discrimination and Judicial Misconduct


There is, without doubt, an enormous social and racial disparity throughout the criminal justice system in America.  The vast majority of those behind bars are poor; 40% of state prisoners cannot even read; and 67% were unemployed at the time of their arrest.  African Americans comprise approximately 12% of the general population but over half of the prison population.  Most black defendants are tried before all white juries and consequently have higher arrest and conviction rates, serve longer sentences, have higher bail rates and are more often the victims of police use of deadly force than white citizens.  Nationally, for every one black man who graduates from college, 100 are arrested. Thus, given a climate of such blatant social inequalities, no one should be surprised when people like Troy Davis, without a shred of substantial evidence, are imprisoned and ultimately executed.

If an impartial observer would review the facts in this case, he is more likely to conclude that Davis’ execution was like legalized murder. Even the New York Times published an editorial decrying the improprieties of this case entitled, “the Georgia pardon and parole board’s refusal to grant him clemency is appalling in light of developments after his conviction.”


Intimidation of Witnesses


The absence of physical evidence was so severe that prosecutors were compelled to build their case against Davis primarily on the dubious testimony of  nine eye witnesses.  It was the testimony of these witnesses that ultimately ended in a guilty verdict for the prosecution.  However, let the facts speak for themselves.  Some of the nine witnesses were illiterate, and could not read the police-written statements they signed in 1989.  All nine witnesses testified that they saw Troy Davis kill Officer Mark MacPhail.  Since that time, seven recanted their testimony.  Many of the witnesses said they had been coerced by police and threatened if they did not testify against Davis.  At least one, a former inmate, feared police would find some way to return her to prison if she didn’t identify Davis as the shooter in McPhail’s murder.  The intimidation of witnesses by police to favor prosecution is common throughout America, especially within the socially and racially oppressed communities.  Beyond the eyewitnesses, there was no physical evidence that linked Davis to Officer McPhail’s murder.  Three jurors have signed affidavits saying that if they had had all the information about the defendant, they would not have voted to convict him. One juror even arrived in person to the Board of Pardons and Paroles to confess that she would not have voted to convict Davis if she had been privy to all the facts.  Another woman later came forward to identify a different man she alleged was at the crime scene that night, while Sylvester “Redd” Coles, later bragged about actually doing the shooting. Of the two witnesses who still maintained that Troy was the trigger-man, one was Sylvester “Redd” Coles.  All the nine witnesses eventually came forward with evidence that implicated Coles, including one who testified to having heard Coles confess to the murder.  None of their evidence was accepted by the courts.

The former DA who prosecuted Davis has called the recantations “manufactured,” and supporters of Davis’ execution, like neo-con Ann Coulter, have claimed that recanting witnesses were somehow pressured by Davis’ defense team.  Anyone familiar with Ann Coulter’s moronic statement that the radiation fallout from the nuclear disaster in Fukushima was actually good and healthy for the people could not be surprised to read such ludicrous statements.  One of the worst cases of official misconduct in recent memory is that of the notorious former Chicago Police Department commander Jon Burge, who was convicted and sentenced to prison in February of this year for torturing more than 200 (most of them African American men) criminal suspects in order to force confessions.

The incidents cited above of police, prosecutorial and government misconduct are but a small fraction of what can actually take place in similar cases; they are so rampant today in America’s judicial system that they have become the norm rather than the exception.  In one case there was cited over 50 major infractions by the government and the courts against a defendant.  In the town of  Tulia, TX  the racially motivated arrests of 46 people, 39 of them black, resulted in 38 convictions for various drug charges with sentences of up to 90 years in prison.  In the Troy Davis trial there was no forensic evidence, particularly no DNA evidence that linked him to the shooting.  No weapon was ever found and the ballistics evidence presented at Davis’ trial was unreliable. Coles later admitted he owned the same type of .38 caliber gun used to kill McPhail, but claimed to have given it away the night of the murder.

From day one, David maintained his innocence.  But in this unjust social system, he was the wrong color, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong bank account and the wrong legal team, so he was thrown into the death house with little fanfare.  But for the tireless work of Troy’s family, his case would never have received world-wide attention. Prominent people from all walks of like—from  former President Jimmy Carter to Archbishop Desmond Tutu to Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Norman Fletcher to Pope Benedict XVI to Reagan’s former FBI Director William Sessions to the more than one million people who signed petitions, the injustices were clear and they all agreed that Davis should have received a pardon.  But their appeals to the Board of Pardons and Paroles fell on deaf ears.  It is interesting to note that previously, the Board issued a statement that they would only allow the execution to go through, if there was “no doubt” as to his guilt.  In the Troy Davis case they conveniently suffered acute memory loss.  Judge Mathis of TV fame, cited that “….it criminal that this man was executed with so much doubt surrounding his case. Georgia has blood on its hands.”

Capital Punishment

Let us revisit the ongoing debate about the legality of the death penalty to which the Troy Davis trail redirected public attention.  Allah knows that most people, even the most hardened criminals, have a natural fear of death; it is an innate characteristic that is a constant reminder to them of the uncertain fate that awaits us all at the expiration of our lives. If we don’t think about it consciously, we will think about it unconsciously.  For example, if every potential murderer who contemplated killing someone knew that after he committed that act he would be killed immediately, he would probably be reluctant in following through with such plans.  As a result society would likely witness a dramatic decrease in homicide rates.  Why? Because no one, unless psychologically challenged or under mind control wants to die.  If criminals knew that everyone in a community they have targeted for assault possessed fire arms, the criminals would generally avoid menacing that community.  Crime rates in that community would decline sharply or remain low, primarily because the vast majority of criminals, as do all law-abiding citizens, share a natural aversion to death.  Cities where the possession of fire arms is legal or even mandatory, statistically, have the lowest crime rates.  Therefore, if the criminal justice system adopted a policy of swift and severe punishment, changing the laws to make capital punishment faster, discouraging  frivolous appeals and making the legitimate ones a much shorter process, we could witness a substantial decline in crime in ever social sector.

Most criminals weigh the pros and cons concerning their safety before deciding to commit a crime.  Every violation has a price. Practically all our purchase decisions are based on the question of “am I willing to pay a heavy price for my decision”? If one walks into a grocery store with only $4.00 and has to make a choice between purchasing a carton of eggs produced by organically raised, free roaming chickens for $7.00 and a $2.98 carton of eggs from hens raised on harmful GMO feed and who never saw the light of day, if one is smart he would purchase the cheaper carton or not make a purchase at all until he could save up enough money to buy the more expensive carton.  In a similar way, the criminal has to decide if he is willing to pay the price that comes with the crime he intends to commit.  Is he willing to pay the price for murder or sexual assault with a fast and swift death penalty or take a chance in committing a non-capital offense or opt to avoid misbehavior altogether?  Fear of swift, severe capital punishment will force even the most inveterate criminal to weigh the consequences before deciding to commit a major crime.

Its Purpose

The purpose of the death penalty should be to save lives through discouraging the commission of capital offences.  The advantages of it are that repeat murders would be rare if not eliminated altogether and future acts of violence would be deterred. Even Hugo Adam Bedau, best known for his work on capital punishment and known as a “leading anti-death-penalty scholar”, once said:   “The execution of the innocent believed guilty is a miscarriage of justice that must be opposed whenever detected.  But such miscarriage of justice does not warrant abolition at the death penalty.  Unless the moral drawbacks of an activity practice, which include the possible death of innocent lives that might be saved by it, the activity is warranted.  Most human activities like medicine, manufacturing, automobile, and air traffic, sports, not to mention wars and revolutions, cause the death of  innocent bystanders.  Nevertheless, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages and human activities, including the penal system with all its punishments, are morally justified”.  Wesley Lowe states, “As for the penal system, accidentally executing an innocent person, I must point out that in this imperfect world, citizens are required to take certain risks in exchange for safety”.  He further says, “we risk dying in an accident when we drive a car, yet that it is acceptable.  Therefore, risking that someone might be wrongfully executed is worth saving thousand’s of innocent people who may be the next victim of murder”.


Right to Live

Opponents say the State is like the murderer himself.  In other words, if execution is murder, then killing someone in war is murder, which means that nations should stop fighting wars.  On the contrary, it is always necessary to protect the rights of the people.  Hence, the death penalty is vital to protect an innocent person’s right to life.  Can arresting someone be considered the same as kidnapping someone? Obviously no.  Therefore the just execution of an capital offender cannot be considered murder when it is punishment based on the rule of natural law for any deserving criminal. If the death sentence can deter future murderers, we will have spared the lives of future victims as well as potential murderers, because they were deterred from the commission of new crimes.  In this case, the death penalty is a gain, unless there exists a society wherein the life of a convicted murderer is given a higher value than that of the unknown victim, or victims.  Capital Punishment is not an excessive, unnecessary form of punishment.  For those who knowingly and intentionally commit acts of premeditated murder capital punishment will remain the greatest threat to the criminal and an effective means of protecting the rights of all law-abiding citizens.


Life is Sacred

In an interview with Professor van den Haag, a psychoanalyst and adjunct professor at New York University, was questioned, “Why do you favor the death penalty?”  His answer was that the Federal prison had a man sentenced to Life who, while he was there, committed three additional murders on three separate occasions.  His victims were prison guards and inmates.  In his case there was no more punishment he could receive other than the death penalty to prevent additional bloodletting.  He went on to say, “I hold life sacred, and because I hold it sacred, I feel that anyone who takes some one’s life should know that thereby he forsakes his own and does not just suffer an inconvenience about being put into prison for sometime”. 


An Eye for an Eye

Some people argue that capital punishment tends to brutalize and disregards what is in the best interest of society.  Some people say that the death penalty is nothing more than legalized murder because it is based on the biblical principle “an eye for an eye”.  The difference between punishment and the criminal act is that the former is legalized and the latter is not.  People are more brutalized by the lies and deceptions they witness everyday from the government-controlled news media.  They are not brutalized by the administration of just punishments.  They are brutalized by society’s failure to execute swift and severe punishments for heinous acts of murder and brutality against the innocent.  Could the same outcome be achieved by putting the criminal in prison for life?  Unlikely. Life in prison means that there is always the possibility for the offenders’ release by the parole board usually after serving only a few months.  Even if the sentence handed down was life imprisonment, its deterrent effect will never be as great as that represented by the death penalty.  The truth of the matter is, the death penalty is the only actually irrevocable penalty.  Because of that, it is the one that people fear the most.  Research on issues dealing with the death penalty is one of the most debatable in the criminal justice system.  Today, there are many pros and cons regarding the validity of the death penalty.  However, if people weigh the arguments properly, and have empathy for the victims, they will be more inclined to favor capital punishment.


The Best Option


What many advocates who support the abolishment of the death penalty often fail to realize is that innocent victims of violent crime who die do not have a choice to make a last statement or compose a last will and testament.  On the other hand, people serving a life sentence or who are on death row can watch television, read books and enjoy their lives for another 20 years or so before they are set free or executed.  They, unlike many of their victims, can prepare for their death by making a will and a last statement.   Many victims’ murders remain unsolved, and the killer remains free to enjoying his life somewhere and will probably feel less restricted to murder again in the future.

Consider the case of the 62 year-old grandmother and convicted killer, Betty Beets.  She pleaded for her life because she was on death row and was going to be executed.   This is a woman who had five husbands.  She had already killed the fourth one, and served a prison sentence for murder, and was released from prison early.  After her release from prison she married and then murdered the fifth husband, shooting him and burying him in her back yard.  Betty Beets subsequently was imprisoned a second time, and again pleaded for her life. It has been well proven that people with such criminal behavior are likely to remain repeat offenders.  Case in point: the rate of recidivism is generally high for people who commit murder and other violent crimes.

For this reason many people feel that murderers should be executed the first time without delay because if given only a life sentence there is always the chance that they will return to society to commit other murders.  If there is no death penalty in the state in which a criminal kills someone, there will be little incentive for him to avoid such violent behavior  because his chances of being released in 10 years or less are great.  In the absence of capital punishment there is no fear of death for him and he feels the few years he would serve are worth the sacrifice.  Many murderers are motivated by the fact that they see other murderers in their state get away with murder and thus feel it’s worth the risk to do the same.  There are accounts where people intentionally moved to a non death penalty state so that they could commit murder and avoid execution if convicted.


More Problems With Eyewitness Testimony

It’s not hard to imagine that police, looking at the murder of a fellow officer, would be motivated or pressured to finger a suspect. In the absence of forensic evidence at the scene, or any other physical evidence, all that’s left is eyewitness testimony. Sure, it’s highly unreliable. A study by John Monohan and Brandon Garrett of the University Of Virginia School Of Law found that witness identifications were erroneous in 79% of cases since 1989, which resulted in wrongfully convicted prisoners being exonerated by DNA evidence. The study was cited in a landmark ruling by the New Jersey Supreme Court, which established guidelines for gathering eyewitness testimony that was lacking in Davis’ case.

In fact, eyewitness testimony has become such an obvious flaw in the criminal-justice system that over a month ago, the State Supreme Court of New Jersey issued a landmark ruling on the unreliability of eyewitness testimony and provided new guidelines on how to use such evidence in future cases. The court’s opinion in State v. Henderson is sure to make ripples and, hopefully, can change precedents in other states.  Current research shows that existing Supreme Court standards for evaluating eyewitness testimony are dangerously obsolete.  As Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote for the court, “From social science research to the review of actual police lineups, from laboratory experiments to DNA exonerations, the record proves that the possibility of mistaken identification is real. Indeed, it is now widely known that eyewitness misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions across the country.”

Despite its natural shortcomings, eyewitness testimony is most reliable when gathered by a process that is careful and neutral, preferably administered by officers unaware of who the target suspect is. This is because the incentives to produce testimony favorable to the working theory of the police are overwhelming and usually results outcomes that become cases of obstruction of justice.  According to several of the witnesses who have recanted their testimony, the eyewitness evidence against Davis was gathered by the kind of high-pressure police tactics that are especially likely to produce erroneous identifications. That may be because the New Jersey court ruling at the time was less than a month old. It may yet influence other cases, but for now, the case gathered against Troy Davis was somehow seen by the courts as sufficient to justify his execution, and the doubt in his case wasn’t enough to stop his execution.


The Islamic Model

The American public will, no doubt, remain divided over the issue of whether capital punishment should be continued or banned outright.  Many of the arguments put forth on both sides seem credible and reflect a deep concern about the need to establish the best policies that will guarantee a fair and viable criminal justice system for all citizens, regardless of their race or social class.

As was pointed out earlier, capital punishment or the death penalty is the most practical, and effective deterrent to capital offenses.  Accordingly, many proponents of the death penalty offer many credible and convincing arguments in support of their position.  Those who advocate the complete abolishment of the death penalty have also espoused equally credible arguments to support their position.  However, what both opponents are missing in their arguments is the failure to argue the pros and cons of the death penalty within the context of a just social system.  Simply put, practically every facet of America’s criminal justice system is broken, which means it cannot function in the best interest of the people.  This is particularly true for the financially and socially disadvantaged.  Under a system of tyranny and judicial misconduct, the implementation of capital punishment is, by itself, a capital offense. Under an egalitarian social order, where human rights and freedoms are protected regardless of social class and ethnicity, there is no reason for the people to not rally in full support for capital punishment. Proponents of the death penalty often overlook the discrepancies inherent in the American social justice system.  Opponents of the death penalty are against it regardless of whether or not it is observed within a system of social justice.  Islamic law prescribes the death penalty as a last resort and must only be observed within an environment of social justice for all. Therefore, in the absence of a just social order, Islam would declare the institution of capital punishment to be illegal and tyrannical.


Full Justice


Even if all the nation states of the world united for the purpose of writing the wrongs done to innocent victims of crime, they could never deliver for them the complete justice they deserve.  If Troy Davis had been exonerated by the courts and thereby released for the murder of that Georgia police officer 22 years ago, even such acquittal would have fallen short as compensation for his loss 22 years, the grief, anguish, fear and recurring episodes of psychological trauma both he, his family and friends suffered during that tumultuous period.

That is why justice demands that there be a final period of retribution where the legitimate grievances of all claimants, from the beginning of civilization to the end, can finally be settled.  Such justice and the settling of legitimate claims are impossible to achieve in this world. The Islamic legal system assures that the execution of full justice for all victims and offenders will be fully unveiled on the Day of Judgment.  This will mark a period when all the losses suffered by the aggrieved (the brutally oppressed, the falsely imprisoned, the unjustly murdered and executed, the mercilessly tortured, the savagely raped, the ravenously plundered) will be fully redeemed as a breathtaking function of Allah’s omnipotent Justice and Mercy.

From the teachings of Islam not only will the perpetrators of oppression and wrong doing be severely punished for their misdeeds but their victims will be fully compensated at the offenders’ expense.  The following ahadith (sayings of the Holy Prophet and Imams) will provider the reader a glimpse of the comprehensive manner that the Islamic system administers the day of final retribution:

The Messenger of Allah (s.a.w.s.) said, “One who testifies falsely against someone will be hung by his tongue with the hypocrites in the lowest portion of Hell….”

Imam Muhammad al-Baqir (a.s.) said, “One who goes back upon his testimony or conceals it wholly, Allah shall cut off his flesh and force him to eat it before everyone.  And when he will enter Hell he would be chewing at his own tongue.”  The severity with which Islam deals with those who resort to false testimony or withholds it altogether reflects the depth and hatred Allah has for such behavior.  But punishment alone of the guilty does not represent full justice; it may produce some level of temporary emotional and psychological relief but it does not heal the incalculable pain and losses suffered by the victim. That is why Allah demands that the guilty be made to pay those he victimized with the most precious and priceless things that can be possessed:  good deeds. These are the only things that remain with us after we die. If the balance of one’s total deeds accumulated during his earthly existence is heavy with good actions and light with bad actions he will achieve eternal life in Paradise. If the opposite is the case he will achieve eternal damnation in Hell.

The following sayings of the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.s) illustrate this fact in a most compelling way:  Allah’s Apostle said, “Whoever has oppressed another person concerning his reputation or anything else, he should beg him to forgive him before the Day of Resurrection when there will be no money (to compensate for wrong deeds), but if he has good deeds, those good deeds will be taken from him (as payment) according to his oppression which he has done, and if he has no good deeds, the sins of the oppressed person will be loaded on him.”

The Prophet (s.a.w.s) said, “The bankrupt person of my nation is he who would come on the Day of Resurrection with prayer and fast and giving great amounts in charity. And at the same time, he would come having abused this one, and slandered that one, and consumed the wealth of the other unlawfully, and shed the blood of yet others and physically beaten others. Then any person whom he has wronged will be given from his good deeds on that Day. And if his good deeds are exhausted before he clears the account concerning all of the people he has oppressed, the sins of those people whom he has wronged (in this world) will be thrown into his account and after that, he will be thrown into the hellfire.”  The Holy Prophet (s.a.w.s) also said, “Be on your guard against the plea of one who has been wronged, even if he is a disbeliever for verily there is nothing that will prevent his plea from being answered (by Allah).”

Troy Davis was said by many to be a genuinely good, God-fearing person who obviously made mistakes earlier in life but rectified them in his later years.  If this is true and if it is also true that he was truly innocent of the crime for which he was executed, then, according to the pronouncements in the forgoing traditions, in the next world Troy Davis and many other victims of injustice will be the real winners for eternity.  However, for the time being, as long as race and class bigotry, lying, lust for lucrative career advancement and self-aggrandizement at the expense of the rights of defenders remain the primary motive behind police, prosecutorial and judicial misconduct, we will continue to see more citizens like Troy Davis fall victim to the excesses of an incorrigible American criminal justice system.


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