24 September 2011

Reflections on legal murder: the eye-for-an-eye argument

Troy Davis, a US citizen and a black man, wrongfully sentenced over the killing of a police officer in 1989, was executed by way of a lethal injection yesterday.  ‘Wrongfully’, because the entire case against Troy was based on eyewitness accounts that were horrendously compromised. ‘Wrongfully’, because seven of the nine ‘witnesses’ recanted; some admitting that they were arm-twisted by the police to manufacture their ‘testimonies’.   

Troy is dead.  He was not the first to be legally murdered and will not be the last.  If, as it very likely, he was innocent, then he was not the first innocent person punished for a crime he did not commit.  He probably would not be the last either.   Troy is no more, but before he went, he opened a door.  I intend to walk through it, and hopefully, invite others to accompany me.  This is about the death penalty. Capital punishment.  The practice of extracting an eye as payment for eye-extraction.  This is about making the world safe.  It is about social purification.  It is about deterrence. 
The US ‘justice sytem’ will do as it pleases.  Barack Obama, according to Press Secretary Jay Carney has said that it was not appropriate for the President to weigh in on specific cases like this, which is a state prosecution, although he does a lot more than ‘weigh in’ in the affairs of the world without even a by-your-leave.  Each country has laws and ways of dealing with crimes, punishment included.  Their enactment is the product of histories. Sri Lanka too, has ‘ways’.  Capital punishment is part of these ‘ways’, although it has not been implemented in over a quarter of a century.  More than a decade ago, MP (People’s Alliance) Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra tabled a motion in parliament, demanding that capital punishment be ‘brought back’.  Now I hear that relevant authorities are looking for executioners. 
Troy Davis makes me write.  He makes me revisit Albert Camus’ brilliant and immensely influential essay ‘Reflections on the Guillotine’.  Point by point. Here’s the first: punishment should fit the crime.
So if you rob Rs. 100.00, the state steps in to take back the same amount (plus of course procedural costs incurred) as compensation. Break a house and your house is broken.  Pinch someone and you get pinched back. That kind of thing? 
How about death?  You kill someone and you deserve to die, to get killed.  Well, that theory, if taken to its logical conclusion, should require punishment to duplicate crime.  If you poison someone, they you need to be poisoned in return.  Troy Davis (if he was guilty) ought to have been shot by the same kind of murder weapon, from the same distance at the same time of day and from the same angle. 
Here’s something I wrote on this issue a couple of years ago: Isn’t it true that no murderer puts his/her victim through the kinds of torture that a condemned person is put through, legally, by the state? Which murderer, Albert Camus asks, tells his/her victim the date and time of death, offers elaboration on the method of execution, and subjects the victim to the torture of being held captive with little chance of the decision being overturned in a confined space? No premeditated murder can match the premeditation that the state imposes on a person, slammed, with the penalty of death.
Troy Davis was innocent, I am convinced, or, in the very least, the many question marks pertaining to the procedure add up to enough material to squash the ‘beyond the shadow of doubt’ caveat.  Even if he were guilty, there’s no equivalency in what the victim suffered and what he was made to suffer.  These were words he penned while awaiting his moment of destiny:
Where is the Justice for me? In 1989 I surrendered myself to the police for crimes I knew I was innocent of in an effort to seek justice through the court system in Savannah, Georgia USA. During my imprisonment I have lost more than my freedom, I lost my father and my family has suffered terribly, many times being treated as less than human and even as criminals. In the past I have had lawyers who refused my input, and would not represent me in the manner that I wanted to be represented. I have had witnesses against me threatened into making false statements to seal my death sentence and witnesses who wanted to tell the truth were vilified in court.
For the entire two years I was in jail awaiting trial I wore a handmade cross around my neck, it gave me peace and when a news reporter made a statement in the local news, “Cop-killer wears cross to court,” the cross was immediately taken as if I was unworthy to believe in God or him in me. The only time my family was allowed to enter the courtroom on my behalf was during the sentencing phase where my mother and sister had to beg for my life and the prosecutor simply said, “I was only fit for killing.” Where is the Justice for me, when the courts have refused to allow me relief when multiple witnesses have recanted their testimonies that they lied against me?
He added, ‘Am I to be made an example of to save face? Does anyone care about my family who has been victimized by this death sentence for over 16 years? Does anyone care that my family has the fate of knowing the time and manner by which I may be killed by the state of Georgia?
Take away the racism, inhumanity and flaws that remain uncorrected in the US ‘justice system’, even the guilty are made to suffer far more agonies than what they put their victims through.  But then again, someone might ask, what of the victim, the victim’s loved ones, when and how they obtain closure and other such questions.  The loved ones of the dead police officer have stated ‘relief’ and added ‘finally!’  Understandable.  Still, grief-alleviation is not the business of the state.  Compensation of material kinds can and are extracted from wrongdoer, but not so the relatives can sleep better at night. 
A killer, i.e. a known one, is a threat to society and it is incumbent on the state to protect the citizenry from such threats.  Killing a person who is in no position to harm anyone (assuming jails are break-safe) is not necessary for this.  Killing assumes that correction is impossible and in addition implies that states have some kind of divine eye to assess such things.  Most importantly, execution makes revoking in the event of error being detected impossible. 
We are not living in lawless times when lynching, or collective delivery of justice (or maybe we are!), because facilities such as prisons did not exist or could not be maintained effectively in ways that insulated society from murderers.  Troy Davis was not an exception. Thousands of innocents have been executed.  The families and loved ones of the murdered may or may not have obtained ‘closure’, but those of the victim of premeditated, legal murder would never have found that kind of relief. 
Gandhi said, famously, ‘an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind’.  He was wrong.  The world was and is blind, and that’s why it keeps gouging out eyes and gouging out other eyes to compensation for inflicted/suffered myopia. 
Troy Davis spent 22 years and 30 days awaiting (as it turned out) a day called September 21, 2011.  I don’t know how many times he died during the more than 2 decades spent in jail.  I don’t know in how many ways he died.  I know that he will not die again.  Is this justice?  I really don’t think so, and not because of the massive question mark that hangs over the US judicial system.