Why the Execution of a White Supremacist Murderer Matters Too

We are a society that locks people into cages for decades, then selects a tiny handful to pull out in the middle of the night and kill. That's who we are. And the horror of that is what sickens me, even more than the fact that Troy Davis might have been innocent.
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Wednesday night, two men were executed. Georgia executed Troy Davis, an African-American man whose guilt in the 1989 murder of a white police officer was very much in doubt. And Texas executed Lawrence Brewer, a white supremacist who was unquestionably guilty of the gruesome dragging death slaying of a black man in 1998. In my mind, the two executions are tragedies of essentially equal proportion.

Future generations will look back on the institution of capital punishment as we do the institutions of slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow. We condemn slavery not only because African men and women who had committed no crime were its victims, but because it is morally abhorrent for human beings to buy, sell, and own one another. So it is with the death penalty.

I teach in a law school clinic that represents indigent men and women facing capital punishment. We teach our students how to vigorously and ethically defend our clients in high stakes, complicated cases that are fraught with emotion on all sides. The lawyers who fought for Troy Davis' life embody the zealous devotion to their client that we hope to instill in our students.

I have the same respect for the lawyers in Texas who represent death row inmates in a state where the governor -- a leading Republican candidate for president -- draws cheers when recounting the hundreds of executions over which he has presided. Many of the 474 men and women Texas has executed since 1976 had committed the crimes for which they were convicted and sentenced to death. Some -- like Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed for an arson that fire investigators now believe was an accident -- were almost certainly innocent.

I'm not naïve about the power and relevance of innocence in this context. The fact that we cannot correct a wrongful conviction once a person is executed is among the many reasons to question the wisdom of capital punishment. And nobody could seriously dispute that the execution of an innocent person is "worse" than the execution of a guilty person. Yet, when I take a step back, and think about what we are actually doing, the difference between the two feels marginal.

The death of James Byrd Jr. -- the black man who was tied to the back of a pickup truck in Jasper, Texas and dragged to his death -- is shocking to recall, almost 15 years later. His murder is almost unimaginably cruel; it is impossible to read the details without being overcome with anger and revulsion. Yet this is what James Byrd's sister had to say on the eve of Lawrence Brewer's execution: "If I saw him face to face, I'd tell him I forgive him for what he did. Otherwise I'd be like him."

Requests to sign petitions for Troy Davis flooded my inbox over the past several weeks. I'm glad they did, and I signed them. I would have signed one for Lawrence Brewer, too. But there were none. It worries me that many of the more than 600,000 people around the world who protested Troy Davis' execution did not even know about the impending end of Lawrence Brewer's life. And it worries me that many of those who did know about it did not lose any sleep over it.

Years from now, I believe the death penalty will be condemned because of what it reflects about us, not the individuals the state has killed in our name. We are a society that locks hundreds of thousands of people into small cages for decades, and then arbitrarily selects a tiny handful to pull out in the middle of the night and kill. That's who we are. And the horror of that is what sickens me, even more than the fact that Troy Davis might have been innocent.

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