Life, death, justice and capital punishment

Two executions are scheduled for today. Racist Lawrence Brewer will be killed in Texas for the savage murder of James Byrd. Troy Davis will be killed for the murder of Mark MacPhail, a police officer in Savannah, Georgia.

MacPhail was an elite Army Ranger who left the service so that his family could have more stability. He was moonlighting as a security guard in 1989 when he attempted to help a homeless man who was being assaulted. Even though he hadn’t drawn a gun, he was shot in the heart and face and died, leaving a wife and young daughter and newborn son.

Troy Davis was arrested for the crime and convicted after some nine witnesses testified they had seen Davis shoot MacPhail or heard his confession. No physical evidence was allowed at the trial that tied him to the crime. He maintained his innocence but was convicted and sentenced to death over 20 years ago.

There have been many appeals and many changes since 20 years ago. For example, many of the witnesses have since changed their story or said the police pressured them.

I haven’t heard any effort to stop the execution of Lawrence Brewer but many hundreds of thousands of people have weighed in against the execution of Davis. This includes people who generally approve of the death penalty but think his particular case wasn’t ironclad. The various appeals boards and courts over the years have upheld the original sentence. This includes the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles, that denied him review just yesterday.

Last week we highlighted the excellent work of Associated Press report Michael Graczyk, who covers death row in Texas.

I’d been a bit disappointed with the coverage of the Davis case, partly because there were these hints of religion ghosts that came through in Christan and niche media reports. Take, for instance, this story from BlackAmericaweb.com, where Davis’ sister Martina Correia is interviewed:

“I just have a strong faith in God,” Correia said when asked how she manages. “Whenever I have something happening, and it’s too much of a burden for me to carry, I just give it over to God.” …

Through it all, she said, her brother has shown resilience. “He asks God if it’s his will to use him to make a bigger statement about innocence, then that’s God’s will.”

Local news reports have explained the role that local clergy and religious groups have played in protests. And a Washington Post blog did a roundup of pastor’s reactions.

Coverage of any religion angle for the victim’s family has been difficult to find.

But for a late update, I thought this Associated Press report of the latest developments had pretty good information:

Davis supporters said they will push the pardons board to reconsider the case and urge prison workers to strike or call in sick on Wednesday to prevent Davis’ execution. They also will ask prosecutors to block the execution.

“This is a civil rights violation and a human rights violation in the worst way,” said the Rev. Raphael Warnock, who spoke to the board on Davis’ behalf on Monday. “This is Jim Crow in a new era. There’s too much doubt for this execution to continue.”

In a brief statement, the five-member pardons board said it carefully reviewed the case before deciding to deny clemency. The board, which votes behind closed doors, did not issue a breakdown of the vote, but said the members “have not taken their responsibility lightly and certainly understand the emotions attached to a death penalty case.”

MacPhail was shot to death Aug. 19, 1989, after coming to the aid of Larry Young, a homeless man who was pistol-whipped in a Burger King parking lot. Prosecutors say Davis was with another man who was demanding that Young give him a beer when Davis pulled out a handgun and bashed Young with it. When MacPhail arrived to help, they say Davis had a smirk on his face as he shot the officer to death.

It ended this way:

Among those who supported Davis’ clemency request are former president Jimmy Carter and Pope Benedict XVI. A host of conservative figures have also advocated on his behalf, including former U.S. Rep. Bob Barr, ex-Justice Department official Larry Thompson and one-time FBI Director William Sessions.

Davis, meanwhile, spent the day in the state prison visiting friends, family and clergy members. Wende Gozan Brown of Amnesty International, one of Davis’ visitors, said he was trying to stay upbeat.

“He said he’s in good spirits, he’s prayerful and he’s at peace. But he said he will not stop fighting until he’s taken his last breath. And he said Georgia is about to snuff out the life of an innocent man.”

It’s not surprising that religion would be present in a discussion of life and death and justice. I do wish that stories would go a bit deeper than just a mention that a religious figure weighed in. These issues aren’t simple and even the positions of known death penalty critics such as the Catholic Church are rarely explained well or thoroughly enough.

Whether it’s for James Byrd’s murder or someone else’s, these executions are a good time for reporters to include these debates and discussions and they make for much more interesting, if challenging stories. Let us know if you saw any particularly good stories that included religion angles.

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  • Emmanuel Goldstein

    You say the religion of the victim’s family has been hard to find. Another factoid that has been hard to find is the fact that the evidence excluded (on technical grounds) from the trial were Davis’ clothes covered in MacPhail’s blood and brain tissue. Thus, when one considers that there is absolutely no doubt about his guilt, the braying about “innocent blood” by some members of the clergy reveals the depravity of them. (If you want to object to the death penalty, fine. But at least to not falsely accuse those who carried it out.)


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