Thursday, September 22, 2011

A tale of two executions

I'm sitting in the Salt Lake airport thinking about what occurred in our country last night. While the news has been filled with the execution of the possibly (or even probably) innocent Troy Davis, the news is fairly silent over the execution of white supremacist Lawrence Brewer. For so many reason, both executions and make me sick and trouble me.

Racism. One execution results from a black man killing a white man. The other from white men killing a black man--and yet the cases are as different as they get. For the latter, what resulted in capital punishment was an utterly horrendous murder where the guilt of the accused was never really questioned. As reported by the Los Angeles Times:

The night he was killed, [James] Byrd had accepted a ride home from a white man he knew, Shawn Berry, then 24, and two of Berry's friends -- John King, then 23, and Lawrence Brewer, then 31. King and Brewer were later identified as white supremacists. . . .
Instead of taking Byrd home, the men drove him down a remote county road, beat him unconscious, urinated on his body, chained him by his ankles to the truck and dragged him for three miles. When the truck made a hard turn at a bend in the road, Byrd's head struck a cement culvert and he was decapitated. The three men then dumped his remains in front of an African American cemetery and went to a barbecue.

On the other hand, in the execution of Troy Davis, there has arisen severe doubt that Davis is even guilty. Most of his supposed witnesses have recanted their claims, leaving little if any evidence tying Davis to the crime--while evidence now actually places the guilt on one of the remaining "witnesses."

On one end a white man had to commit a disgusted, repulsive, and hate-filled murder to find a place in the hands of an executioner. On the other end, a black man merely needed to seem guilty with doubtful evidence to have his life ended with the support of the state.

While I join with so many in the nation who lament over the death Troy Davis and are angered over Georgia's injustice in murdering a potentially innocent person, I am almost more bothered by the death of Lawrence Brewer--because I wanted it to happen.

While reading over the accounts of Byrd's murder I found myself not only disgusted by what happened, but I found myself desiring Brewer to die. In my heart I could feel a hatred for the person. I wanted another person to die. No--not just die. I wanted him strung up to the back of a truck and dragged along a rough road, just as he had done to Byrd. I wanted him to suffer. And the sad fact is that most of you when reading the account of Brewer's crime felt the same way. We don't want him to die from some vague notion of justice and fairness. We want him to die because we feel that it will in some way fulfill an emotional need to know that another person is suffering and dying.

As many have pointed out. This isn't about justice it's about revenge.

Following Davis's execution, the family of Mark MacPhail (the victim that Davis was accused of killing) said that they were relieved that Davis was dead. Trust me, that relief won't last long. It never does. For them it wasn't about justice. If we could even grant that capital punishment actually dealt out justice, Davis's death could never qualify in any sense. At even the most common and basic notion of retributive justice, we would grant that only those who are truly guilty should be punished for a crime--and with Davis, there is no such certainty. Davis's family didn't want justice. If they wanted justice they would want absolute certainty that they had found the right person. And to be honest, they didn't even want revenge, as even revenge would make the same demands. Their desire for Davis's death, Georgia's desire for Davis's death, and, yes, every person's desire to maintain capital punishment lies in a desire for death. MacPhail's family was hurt that their son, brother, husband, and father was killed and they, in turn, felt that their emotional state could only be assuaged by the death of someone else--the death of anyone really--as long as they could tell themselves that it met some other grand purpose: "justice." And since Troy Davis was the closest and easiest person to sacrifice with the hope of saving their emotionally distraught soul, they asked the priests of Georgia to offer him up to the God of revenge upon the altar of "justice."

When it comes down to it, capital punishment is merely the killing of another person in order to fulfill an emotional desire--there is only a very thin line that separates it from the actions it is purporting to condemn and remedy.

When the state murders one of its systems in a calculated and determined manner it denies the very thing it pretends to proclaim. Capital punishment denies that all living human beings have an intrinsic and necessary right to life. Instead it makes it clear that human's have no inherent and intrinsic right. Rather it is something that is arbitrary and unnecessary, to be given and taken at will.

And so today Troy Davis is dead. Lawrence Brewer is dead. Both are sacrificial victims of a society that thrives on death. And I am bothered. Bothered that our system allows a potentially innocent person to be murdered by the state. And bothered that I am glad that a guilty person has died to somehow make me feel better.


  1. Good post. I had just read about the Davis execution and thought again how awful the death penalty is. It's the stories like Byrd's that bring out all the emotions, like you said.

    Ross Byrd, Jame's son, didn't want the execution to happen. See here:

    "You can't fight murder with murder," Ross Byrd, 32, told Reuters late Tuesday, the night before Wednesday's scheduled execution of Lawrence Russell Brewer for one of the most notorious hate crimes in modern times.

    "Life in prison would have been fine. I know he can't hurt my daddy anymore. I wish the state would take in mind that this isn't what we want."

  2. Second last para - "When the state murders one of its systems ..." - did you mean "When the state murders one of its citizens ..."?


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