The benefit of doubt

The execution of Troy Davis by the state of Georgia came as a shock, though he was sentenced more than twenty years ago. The shock came in part because his execution had been stayed three times before, and in part because doubt had been cast on the case against him. And if he was innocent, he wouldn't be the first innocent man to be put to death by the state. According to the Northwestern University School of Law Center on Wrongful Convictions, at least 39 executions in America have been carried out in the face of evidence of innocence or serious doubt of guilt. More than 100 people sentenced to death have been released from death row, exonerated by new evidence. Though seven of the nine witnesses on whose testimony Davis was convicted later recanted their stories, the last minute appeal to the Supreme Court was denied. Davis was killed at 11:08pm on 21 September.

Among the more shocking things in the Davis case was Ann Coulter's column “Cop-killer is media's latest baby seal,” in which she stated that Davis, like every other prisoner executed in the past sixty years, was “guilty as hell.” Such unshakeable confidence goes beyond a persuasion that capital punishment is a sound legal principle. Coulter asserts, in defiance of doubt, that fallible humans have never once erred in its application. She seems to imply that capital punishment works because it kills a lot of people. (And, strangely, that baby seals somehow represent objects of misplaced compassion.)

I'm reminded of Chesterton, who said “It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.” Unfortunately, bigotry in this sense is regarded by many on the right as a strength. Imagining that you might be wrong is unAmerican. Having a capacity for doubt, or even for entertaining another point of view, is weakness. It shows a heart not sufficiently whole, and a mind unforgivably muddled.

Not long before Davis died, Texan Governor Rick Perry was asked at a Republican presidential debate whether he'd ever lost sleep over the deaths of people his state has executed (over 200 on his watch). He replied "I've never struggled with that at all." It's hard to know whether this response was honest or calculated, but either way it means Perry's view of strength includes no capacity for doubt, for thinking about what he already thinks he knows. It means that for him justice is about good guys and cop killers, and a moment's hesitation - or a night's - might cost you. It means he hasn't allowed himself to think very much at all (nor, I would hazard, has Coulter) about what it means to kill a human being, especially one that might very well be innocent.