State Killing: Scalia Doesn’t Care Whether You’re Innocent, You Get Executed Anyway

(10 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

In the middle of Justice Scalia’s dissent in Troy Davis’s case, a dissent that Clarence Thomas joined in, we have this remarkable, astonishing, shocking sentence:

“This court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a court that he is ‘actually’ innocent.”

I cannot believe that they wrote this in a Supeme Court opinion.  And I’m not alone in thinking I would never, never, never see something like this in a published opinion.

Let’s begin with the trial.  The State of Georgia tried Troy Davis for murder and it got a conviction.  And that conviction was upheld on appeal. In fact, there was nothing the matter with the trial, nothing wrong at all according to the appeals courts except one small thing.  The jury convicted an innocent man, despite his use of an experienced criminal defense attorney.

Troy Davis was convicted of the capital murder of Mark MacPhail, an off-duty police officer who as then working as a security guard.  You might think that convicting an innocent person was a serious problem with the trial. Unfortunately, Davis’s persistent claims that he was innocent of the crime weren’t enough to convince anyone. It was only later on, after the trial, after the appeals, that the ugly circumstances in the case emerged.

There were nine witnesses to the crime in which MacPhail was killed.  Anthony Davis was apparently in a pool hall with a lot of other people.  A man named Sylvester Coles was beating a homeless man outside; people including Davis emerged from the pool hall to see what was happening.  MacPhail came to the aid of the person being beaten and was shot and killed.  At trial Sylvester Coles was the prosecution’s star witness.  Seven other people said Anthony Davis committed the crime.  The gun was never found.  There was no physical evidence of any kind. That was the trial testimony, and it lead to a conviction and the death penalty.  And to several affirmances on appeal.

And then, and then, and then, ut oh. Seven of the eight witnesses who claimed under oath and at trial to see Davis shoot MacPhail gave affidavits that their testimony at trial was false and they recanted their testimony.  And some said that Coles was the actual killer and not Davis and that police coercion forced them to testify against Troy Davis instead of the real killer.

So Anthony Davis sits on death row.  And he’s facing execution.  And the case goes to the Supreme Court.  The majority, thank goodness, sent the case back to federal court for a hearing. Good. But Justices Scalia and Thomas dissented.  And it’s their dissent that makes me cringe.

Why?  Evidently, in Scalia/Thomas World, if the state tries and convicts the wrong man, one who is actually innocent, and there’s no Constitutional error committed in the trial according to the state courts, there’s no constitutional problem with the state’s killing him.  Even if he’s innocent.  In other words, it’s 100% legal, 100% ok to kill an innocent person.  Law Professor Paul Campos explains:

Scalia takes the position that, from a legal perspective, it no longer makes the slightest difference whether Davis is innocent of the murder he was convicted of committing, and for which, in all likelihood, he will be executed. If a defendant got a fair trial in state court, there’s nothing the federal court can do, Scalia argues, to reverse that verdict-even if new evidence comes to light that convinces the court to a moral certainty that the defendant is innocent.

Scalia represents an extreme example of a certain kind of judge that positively revels in coming to conclusions that are morally revolting but “legally” sound. Judges of this type like these sorts of cases because they demonstrate that law is a supposedly nonpolitical and intellectually rigorous practice, rather than a touchy-feely exercise in doing what strikes the judge as the right thing.

What, after all, could be more nonpolitical and intellectually rigorous than executing an innocent man, simply because “the law” requires that result? In a perverse way, such bloody logic is a kind of advertisement for the supposed objectivity of the legal system, since we can assume that no sane decision maker would reach such a decision voluntarily. (The great legal historian Douglas Hay explained the 18th-century English practice of sometimes acquitting obviously guilty men on absurd procedural technicalities, such as incorrectly calling the defendant a “farmer” instead of a “yeoman,” in similar terms: “When the ruling class acquitted men on such technicalities they helped embody a belief in the disembodied justice of the law in the minds of all who watched. In short the law’s absurd formalism was part of its strength as ideology.”)

For more details on this case, and the recantations, see this.

I have written extensively about the barbarism that lies behind state killing.  But I have never before seen anything quite like this statement from Justices Scalia and Thomas.  It used to be a fundamental part of the law that it was better to let 99 guilty people go free than to convict 1 innocent person.  In fact, the system of criminal justice in this Country was built on this very platform.  But now, we have two Supreme Court justices writing that the death penalty can be upheld even when the person executed is innocent, that innocence just doesn’t matter.  Forget about the fact that if you’re killing an innocent person, the person who actually did the crime hasn’t been convicted.

That is chilling and simply disgraceful.

And it’s another strong reason for ending state killing entirely.  The machinery of death is an embarrassment to a civilized nation.  Arguments like Scalia’s and Thomas’s reduce us to barbarians.  And we’re going to have evil, immoral arguments like these as long as there’s a death penalty.  That and we’re going to continue to make it possible to kill innocent people.


cross-posted from The Dream Antilles


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  1. And could we have some new Supreme Court Justices too?

    Thanks for reading.

  2. The conclusions, or opinions of supreme court justices in this instance are simply fantastic.

    What are they thinking.

    Abraham  Lincoln had a similar lapse of morals when he approved/sentenced 38 Native Americans to die, albeit down from over 300, but they did hang 39, one by mistake.

    The majority of those executed were the chiefs & medicine men/teachers, those who could pass on traditions & language.

    He did win the election though.  

    • banger on August 20, 2009 at 21:54

    in the American sense. He is not a libertarian or barbarian he is a statist. The functions of the state take precedence over everything. The highest expression of the state is an Imperial regime rule and watched over by a permanent elite that always knows better. Any concession to the rights of “criminals” (if you were arrested and tried you must be in the class of criminals or you wouldn’t have caught the attention of the police) would impede not only the efficient running of the state but would dilute the fear and terror the state inspires among the ordinary people. He would say this fear (like the fear of going to Hell) is essential to an orderly society. We have to make a credible argument that it is wrong. BTW most politicians and official journalists (in the tradition of Walter Lippman) fundamentally agree with this philosophy.

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