Commentary | The death penalty exacerbates racial inequity

How the case of Troy Davis outlines more than one problem in the US criminal justice system

On September 22, 2011, the stories of two men in America came to an end. One of these men was named Troy Davis. He was sentenced to death in 1991 for purportedly murdering a police officer in Georgia. Over the course of his time in jail, Davis acquired a strong band of supporters including Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Pope Benedict XVI, and millions of Americans who believed he had been wrongly convicted and targeted for being black.

The other man was named Lawrence Brewer. Brewer was one of three white supremacists who, in 1998, picked up the black man James Byrd Jr, as he was hitchhiking. After picking him up, the three men savagely beat him, urinated on him, and tied him to the back of their pickup truck. They then proceeded to drag him to his death, leading his body to become so mutilated that officials believed the headless corpse was road kill. Since the day of that hate crime, which gained national attention, Brewer has shown no sign of repentance. A few days before being executed, Brewer was even reported as stating “As far as any regrets, no, I have no regrets. No, I’d do it all over again, to tell you the truth.”

Despite their differences, both men became the victims of state sanctioned murder. It is easy to forget the evil of the death penalty when heinous crimes such as Brewer’s are brought up. Yet, regardless of how heinous one’s crimes may be, the state should never have the right to put an end to one’s life. As such, if one is to fight against the death penalty, one must do so in all cases, not just the clearly unjust. Beyond the death penalty’s inherent immorality, Davis’ death draws attention to other issues that plague the state’s right to murder.

For example, Davis was sentenced to death based solely on eyewitness testimony. No DNA evidence connecting Davis to the crime was presented. This alone is proof of injustice, as a death sentence should not be allowed to be handed out solely on the basis of eyewitness accounts – especially when these accounts were later withdrawn.

Seven of the nine witnesses who submitted affidavits went on to deny their allegations. One of them being Darrell Collins, sixteen at the time of the conviction, who claimed that “I told them it was…not Troy who was messing with that man, but they didn’t want to hear that. The detectives told me, ‘Fine, have it your way. Kiss your life goodbye because you’re going to jail.’ After a couple of hours of the detectives yelling at me and threatening me, I finally broke down and told them what they wanted to hear”, according to a 2007 Washington Post article.

Davis’ death is a reminder of the inequality African Americans face at the cruel hands of the law in America. Despite making up only 12 per cent of the American population, 41 per cent of the inmates on death row are black. In addition, in the last 34 years, an almost equal number of black and white people were murdered in the United States. However, 80 per cent of the people executed over this span of time were those that had murdered white individuals. Black people are still ultimately sentenced to death in greater numbers, yet those who murder black individuals are often let free. While people of all races have been subjected to state sanctioned murder, the death penalty increases the severity of inherant in the system.

So, while it is easy to feel disgusted at the explicit acts of hate committed by men like Brewer, consider the more systemic evils committed by the state itself. In 2011, after having his life ruined and being confined to prisons for twenty years, a black man was strapped down and put to death. Sure, there was no tree or noose , and the angry mob was replaced by journalists and family, but, 149 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, black men are still susceptible to state enforced oppression.

Regardless of its brutality, the death penalty is only one of many structures of authority and domination that exist within our world today. This column will take up the task of examining these structures, and determining whether or not they deserve to exist. For, if authority figures cannot entirely justify their removal of freedoms they have no right to do.

Balaclava Discourse is a column written by Davide Mastracci on the structures of authority, hierarchy, and domination in society. It appears every other Monday in commentary. You can email him at balaclavadiscourse@mcgilldaily.com.


Comments posted on The McGill Daily's website must abide by our comments policy.
A change in our comments policy was enacted on January 23, 2017, closing the comments section of non-editorial posts. Find out more about this change here.