September 21 marked the one-year anniversary of the death of Troy Davis. Davis was executed by the state of Georgia for a crime he probably did not commit. Davis’s original trial was flawed, and there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime. His conviction was based solely on questionable testimony by witnesses, most of whom later recanted or contradicted their stories. Everyone from Jimmy Carter to the Pope had issued calls for clemency in his case. But the authorities killed him anyway.
Now Missouri is pursuing a very similar case, with death row inmate Reggie Clemons. As with the Davis case, there is no physical evidence linking Clemons to the crime for which he was convicted, and his conviction was based solely on witness testimony. One witness had been a former suspect in the case. In other words, here too there appears to be reasonable doubt as to the defendant’s guilt.
This past week, Clemons was given an evidentiary hearing to review evidence of prosecutorial misconduct and police brutality in the case. One bombshell is an allegation that the star prosecution witness in the case had received a payment of $150,000 to settle a dispute with police over physical abuse. Clemons alleges that the police had abused him as well. If they can’t get a confession by humane means, I guess they feel they have to beat it out of you. And that kind of “truth” is always suspect at best.
Clemons’s hearing will continue to move forward, and anything could happen. But the prosecution still wants blood, claiming that Clemons previously had his chance to clear his name. Never mind the fact that he had been represented in his original trial by an incompetent attorney who failed to mount an adequate defense.
Meanwhile, in my home state of Pennsylvania, death row inmate Terrance Williams faces an October 3 execution date. Unlike the Davis and Clemons cases, there is no doubt that Williams committed the murder for which he was sentenced to die. However, during the initial trial, the defense failed to mention the fact that Williams, who was barely 18 years old at the time of the murder, had endured years of sexual abuse by the man he later killed. In fact, Williams had been abused by older men since he was six years old, and the abuse continued throughout his adolescence. But the jury never heard about this.
Five of the former jurors in the Williams case are now saying that they would not have voted for the death penalty if they had known about the sexual abuse. Furthermore, some said they voted for execution only because they thought the alternative would be life with the possibility of parole. (In fact, the alternative would have been life without the possibility of parole.) The victim’s widow has even called for clemency. The defense continues to fight for a life sentence as the clock keeps on ticking.
But even in cases where guilt is clear and there aren’t the kind of mitigating circumstances such as we see in the Williams case, does it really make sense to kill a killer in order to show that killing is wrong?
Furthermore, studies have shown that the death penalty is applied in a discriminatory, arbitrary, and uneven manner, and is used disproportionately against racial minorities and the poor. That’s not justice, it’s prejudice.
We as a society should be above that sort of thing.
Mary Shaw is a Philadelphia-based writer and activist, with a focus on politics, human rights, and social justice. She is a former Philadelphia Area Coordinator for the Nobel-Prize-winning human rights group Amnesty International, and her views appear regularly in a variety of newspapers, magazines, and websites. Note that the ideas expressed here are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Amnesty International or any other organization with which she may be associated. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.