Brewer, Davis Executions Highlight Best, Worst of Capital Punishment

COMMENTARY | Two men were executed Wednesday for murders they were convicted of. Troy Davis was executed in Georgia, despite public pressure from people all over the world. The other man who was executed was Lawrence Russell Brewer. Their two stories represent the best and worst of the death penalty in our country.

Troy Davis, an African American man, was convicted in 1991 of killing an off-duty police officer. According to Reuters, in recent years several eye-witnesses recanted that testimony that named Davis as the man who shot officer Mark McPhail. There was never any DNA evidence linking Davis to the crime, and the murder weapon was never recovered.

Despite these facts, which should at least bring up the question of his guilt, Davis ultimately lost his fight for his life. His conviction rested solely on eye-witness testimony, which can be unreliable.

The press given to the Troy Davis case was deserved, as we should never put a man to death when there is a legitimate reason to question his conviction. His case, however, did take attention away from the other execution that happened that night, the execution of Lawrence Russell Brewer.

Brewer was a white supremacist who was sentenced to death for the 1998 dragging death of James Byrd Jr. Byrd was an African American man who was dragged along a Texas road with a logging chain attached to the back of a pick-up truck. When Byrd’s remains were found, they were not immediately recognizable as human .

I have long been an advocate for the death penalty. I have lost more than one family member to violent crime, and I have no issues with murderers being sentenced to death. In the case of Lawrence Russell Brewer, I cannot think of a more deserving punishment for his heinous crime. He saw Byrd as something less than human, and took pleasure in robbing Byrd of his right to life.

When it comes to Troy Davis, the answer isn’t as cut and dry. Davis was convicted with the statements of eye-witnesses, people who can make mistakes. Even when those witnesses came forward and told of their mistakes, prosecutors insisted they had convicted the right man. They were sure of this, even with no murder weapon, no DNA, and absolutely nothing physical linking the man to the crime.

If we are going to continue capital punishment in this country, we at least need to pause when there is a chance that the wrong man has been convicted. We also need to ensure that capital cases cannot be tried with only eyewitness testimony. If the courts are willing to impose the death penalty, there should be a requirement of physical evidence linking the accused to the crime. Killing someone who has committed no crime is murder, and that is what happened to Troy Davis.

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