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Craig A. Thompson: Death penalty debate

Wednesday’s execution of Troy Davis in Georgia has reignited a fierce debate concerning the death penalty.

Indeed, this topic has sparked emotional arguments on both sides for decades, and has touched squarely on issues of race, class, gender, geographic residence and more.

Recently, more attention concerning the death penalty has focused on Southern states. Though 34 of the country’s 50 states still have the death penalty as a form of punishment, only 12 states actually carried out executions within the last year. In those 12 states, 80 percent of all executions took place in the South.

Maryland’s most recent involvement in this debate occurred when Gov. Martin O’Malley appointed several citizens to serve on the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment. The commission, chaired by former U.S. Attorney Benjamin Civiletti, recommended that the Maryland General Assembly abolish capital punishment in the state. The commission concluded that racial, socioeconomic and jurisdictional disparities, along with DNA evidence challenges and other factors, increased the risk of adding bias to the system.

Over the past several months, the Davis case garnered international attention. Public statements of support for Davis came from former President Jimmy Carter, Pope Benedict XVI, Desmond Tutu, former FBI Director William Sessions, several celebrities and activists, and tens of thousands of concerned citizens. Nearly 1 million people signed petitions urging the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant clemency to Davis.

A brief reminder of the timeline of events in Davis’ case may assist in understanding the vast public engagement in his case:

In August 1989, Mark MacPhail, a police officer in Savannah, Ga., working as a private security guard, intervened to assist a homeless man who was being beaten by another man in a park. Officer MacPhail was shot twice and killed by the person who attacked the homeless man.

Later that month, Troy Davis — then 20 years old — was arrested and charged with the murder of Officer MacPhail, based in large part on the word of a man who claimed to be present at the scene — a gentleman by the name of Sylvester “Redd” Coles.

In 1991, Davis was tried for the murder of Officer MacPhail, as well as lesser charges related to the incident. The jury of seven African-Americans and five whites were shown no physical evidence, and the murder weapon was never found. However, nine witnesses, including Mr. Coles, testified that they witnessed Davis shoot Officer MacPhail. The jury found Davis guilty, and recommended the death penalty.

In the fall of 2003, an Atlanta newspaper began publishing a series of stories documenting several key witnesses at Davis’ trial who recanted their testimony. Seven of the nine witnesses who had testified that they saw Davis shoot Officer MacPhail changed their stories, and most claimed that they had implicated Davis because of pressure by Atlanta police officers.

Of note, there were additional witnesses who came forward and claimed that Mr. Coles, the primary witness for the prosecution, had boasted to them that he was the actual killer. Eventually, three of the jurors who convicted Davis stated that they regretted their decisions, and would have found him not guilty if given another opportunity.

In the summer of 2007, one day before Davis was scheduled to be executed, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles granted him a 90-day stay of execution, yet he was unable to secure a new trial. In September 2008, Davis was scheduled to be executed again, and the U.S. Supreme Court intervened, taking the unusual step of delaying his execution pending its decision on whether to hear the case.

Davis was given a third execution date in October 2008, after the Supreme Court decided not to hear the case. This time, the Georgia Court of Appeals placed a hold on the execution to allow a new petition from Davis.

When those appeals failed, Georgia set a fourth execution date — Sept. 21, 2011. Despite the Davis legal team’s efforts to stay his execution again and seek either clemency or a new trial, Davis was executed by lethal injection that evening.

The Davis case promises to serve as a topic of discussion for years to come, and many say that it will serve as the “watershed moment” that leads to the end of the death penalty. Others argue that the extensive attention paid to the evidence and the case itself over the years demonstrates that the system gets it right.

Whatever position is right, it does make sense at this critical point in our country’s history to take a deeper look at this form of punishment, the pronounced reasons for its existence, and its effectiveness at deterring crime. Indeed, when the world is watching and the American scales of justice are themselves being weighed in the balance, it is important that we as a nation come out on the right side of history.

Craig A. Thompson, who writes a monthly column for The Daily Record, is a partner at Venable LLP, and represents clients in the areas of commercial litigation, products liability, and personal injury. He is the chair of the firm’s diversity committee. He is also the host of a weekly two-way talk radio show, and the author of a series of children’s books on African-American history. His email address is CAThompson@Venable.com.