On the Death Penalty and Eyewitness Testimony

Last night, at 11:08PM EDT, Troy Davis was executed by the state of Georgia, despite local and international outcry. Today is one of those days where I really don’t like being a part of humanity. So, let me get this off my chest, even though it has nothing to do with astronomy.

Mixed messages? Uh, yeah. By Dan4th on Flickr. And from my very own state of Virginia.

I have always been against the death penalty, at least as best as I can remember. (Human memory is fallible, and that will become important shortly.) When I was religious, I believed that only God had the power to judge, to create and take human life. Who are we mere mortals to judge? I don’t think that the overall sentiment has changed now that I no longer hold a belief in an omnipotent and just deity. Who are we, still, to determine who should live and who should die? By what standards? After all, as a humanist, I am “committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity,” as discussed in the Humanist Manifesto. The civilized world is trending away from capital punishment, and I believe that we should follow suit, even if we have to do it state by state.

In addition to moral and ethical reasons, the Troy Davis case has shown us that significant doubt can be generated for a death-row inmate. The United States (or more precisely, its constituent States) may be guilty of killing innocent inmates, and that should bother every single citizen. To date, 139 death row inmates have been exonerated. I do not accept such a failure rate. Amnesty International, the organization that fights against human rights violations all over the world, makes a pretty good case against the death penalty if you desire to explore further.

To make sure I’m clear about this, my position is against capital punishment, regardless of guilt or innocence, and I’m extremely disgusted at how easily an innocent person may be sentenced to die. I cannot know for sure if Troy Davis was innocent or guilty, but I reject his execution either way. And, I am repulsed that his execution went forward in light of so much doubt.

However, there is an aspect of the Troy Davis case that disturbs me even more, that is, the case of his original conviction. Though there was some ballistic evidence that he had once been in possession of the gun that was fired, the murder conviction was mostly based on eyewitness testimony. Most people have focused on the fact that 7 of those 9 eye-witnesses have recanted their testimony, but my problem is with the conviction in the first place. Modern science has shown us time and time again that eyewitness reports are anything but “beyond a reasonable doubt.” There are so so many examples from research and from everyday life that tell us this. And that doesn’t even take into account the possibility of testimonies gone wrong.

As the Skeptical Teacher reported just a couple of weeks ago, at least one state is starting to get it. Are we all really going to be shown up by New Jersey? Our justice system is in big trouble if we rely too heavily on eyewitness testimony. Remember that when you are up for jury duty. Remember that if you are in law school. Remember that, as you write to you local politicians and petition your judges. Remember that when discussing crime and punishment with anyone who still thinks that eyewitness testimony is enough to send a person to jail, or a man, proclaiming innocence, to his death.

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