After hearing a story on NPR this morning, I remember thinking that people do not want justice, they want retribution. Unfortunately, this desire seems to drive people to accept any answer rather than the right answer, especially in cases involving violent crimes and the subsequent arrest and conviction of a perpetrator. More to the point of this post, once a suspect is arrested, tried, and convicted, it is difficult to convince some that they may have the wrong man.
Case in point is the story of Troy Anthony Davis who was arrested for the killing of a Savannah, Georgia police officer, Mark Allen MacPhail, in 1989. It should be noted that Troy Davis was not hunted down as a killer, but rather surrendered to police, claiming his innocence. And not that it should matter, but in Georgia, reality is that it might matter—Troy is Black, Mark is White. No, it really should not be about race.
There was no physical evidence to link Troy to the killing—no weapon, no DNA.
Nine “witnesses” testified against Troy Davis during the trial, leading to his conviction. Seven of those nine have now submitted sworn affidavits recanting their testimony. Citing pressure by police officers to name Troy as the killer, those seven are soon to face a new hearing in which they will have to explain their motives then for that testimony, and their motives today to tell the truth.
The case has drawn national and international attention with support coming from the likes of Amnesty International, former President Jimmy Carter (a Georgian and former governor), and Pope Benedict XVI. Their position is not clear in news coverage, whether it is simply support for commuting the death penalty to life in prison, or more decisively for a new trial. Regardless, the case will be heard by a Federal judge in Savannah.
But back to justice: What is justice? To the family of officer MacPhail, justice should be finding the killer responsible for taking a son, brother, husband, and father away from them. Justice should be “knowing” that the killer is behind bars and suitably held responsible for the killing. Justice should not be standing behind a 19-year-old conviction that is now questionable at best.
Justice is blind, but it should not be as blind as to say that once a person has been convicted, that the conviction is ironclad and error proof. As has been seen in recent years, new forensics has cleared convicted prisoners. According to Death Penalty Information Center, 138 convicts on death row have been exonerated since 1973 with either charges being dismissed, or the convict being acquitted or pardoned. In 17 of those cases, DNA played a part in the case. One inmate, Laurence Adams, was cleared after 30 years on death row.
It seems that opponents of new trials are stuck on the results of the initial trial, blindly believing in a system that has noted flaws, unwavering in their hatred for the convict due to the pain and loss the family has suffered. They hold to the fact that a conviction was handed down and refuse to consider that it may have been in error. But as noted in some of the cases reported by DPIC, evidence can be withheld or manipulated in order to give police and prosecutors the “win” they so desperately seek in order to look good or to quell the local clamor for an outcome.
Don’t mistake my position here to be supportive of letting criminals off for technicalities. That’s a sad side to our Constitutional values. No, releasing ANY criminal due to a technical error is a matter of injustice. I’m squarely on the side of being sure that law enforcement officers, lawyers, and the courts act in an honest and honorable manner so that convictions are correct and appropriate when handed down and so that there is no doubt that the guilty are held accountable. Justice is not synonymous with holding “someone” accountable unless that someone is the right person. Let’s get the justice system fixed so that what we get is truly justice—not just a conviction. Let’s get justice for the MacPhail family lest they be tortured by the question of Troy’s innocent life being taken for their benefit. IF Troy is eventually released, it’s my sincerest hope that the true guilty party is found, convicted, and punished. I would add to that wish that there be final peace and closure for the MacPhails.
But peace does not come at the price of a human life. Regardless of who is convicted and executed, the MacPhails are wrong to believe that they will find peace through it all. I clearly do not support the death penalty anyway, but looking for peace this way is not the answer. I would not want to be in a position to think that a convict was put to death for a crime he or she did not commit, while the real guilty party was still out on the streets, free to commit other crimes.
The MacPhails may not want to relive any of what happened, and may be content to accept what they were told and shown years ago, but true justice will not be served until the new evidence is reviewed and evaluated once again. If in the light of that new evidence Troy Davis’ conviction is upheld, justice will have been served.
Mark Allen MacPhail, Sr:
Officer Mark MacPhail was shot and killed while working an off duty security job at a bus station. He was shot while attempting to break up a fight in the parking lot of a nearby fast food restaurant.
The suspect shot him underneath his vest and then again in the head as he fell.
The suspect was sentenced to death.
Officer MacPhail was a U.S. Army veteran and had served with the Savannah Police Department for three years. He was survived by his wife, 1-year-old daughter, infant son, mother, and siblings.