The 'usual' death-penalty ghosts

ExecutionTableHave you been following the case of convicted cop-killer Troy Davis on death row in Georgia? The Georgia clemency board recently granted him a stay of execution, so the story has moved off page one of the major newspapers and back into the inside pages for a while.

Still it is worth following, for several reasons (including what is, for me, a major religion-news ghost).

The best way to get up to speed on this distressing situation is by reading a recent Peter Whoriskey feature story in The Washington Post. There are a number of layers to the controversy, including questions about recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that may make it harder to stop an execution, even when serious questions are raised about the guilt of the person on death row.

What kind of questions?

Three of four witnesses who testified at trial that Davis shot the officer have signed statements contradicting their identification of the gunman. Two other witnesses -- a fellow inmate and a neighborhood acquaintance who told police that Davis had confessed to the shooting -- have said they made it up.

Other witnesses point the finger not at Davis but at another man. Yet none has testified during his appeals because federal courts barred their testimony.

"It's getting scary," Davis said by phone last week. "They don't want to hear the new facts."

This is the point in the story where I expected to run into the religion angle, but did not.

The circumstances of the case have provoked criticism beyond the usual groups that oppose the death penalty.

"There is no more serious violent crime than the murder of an off-duty police officer who was putting his life on the line to protect innocent bystanders," William S. Sessions, FBI director under presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, wrote recently in an op-ed piece in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. But "serious questions have been raised about Davis's guilt. ... It would be intolerable to execute an innocent man."

Please try, for a few minutes, to set aside your convictions against the death penalty. I know this is hard. What I want you to do is ask this question: What are the "usual groups" that oppose the death penalty and why do these groups believe what they believe?

To cut to the chase, there are people on the cultural left for whom the death penalty is a normal part of their agenda. They may be, let's say, pro-abortion rights but anti-death penalty. Then there are people on the right who have it the other way around. They are against abortion, but support -- to varying degrees -- the death penalty.

But what about the "consistently pro-life" people? Whenever I have covered stories linked to the death penalty, I have always found people active in the cause who fell into this camp. Their motivation is, with few exceptions, explicitly religious. Many are Roman Catholics, but there are others who fall into this camp, as well.

I was shocked that Whoriskey's feature, which was very well written, totally ignored the religious themes that are almost always present in death-penalty cases of this kind. In fact, there is little or no content about the "why" element of this story at all.

Once again, why do people oppose the death penalty? Why does it matter so much to them that -- no matter how skilled the investigators -- there will always be people who are killed by the state who are innocent of the crimes they are supposed to have committed?

In other words, is this a religious issue for some of those activists in the "usual groups" who oppose the death penalty? I believe the answer is "yes."

Photo: "Capital punishment," Encyclopedia Britannica Online, July 16, 2007.

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