November 2011: A Line in the Sand - The Death Penalty
Author: Frank Dunne, Jr. & Courtney Hampson | Photographer: Photography by Anne
The T-shirts simply say, “I Am Troy Davis.” I guess they ran out of room because they left out the part that says, “I shoot people in the face, pistol-whip homeless people for fun, shoot and kill off-duty police officers who try to stop me, and I laugh while I’m doing it.”
Yep. That’s what Troy Davis did, and last September the State of Georgia carried out his death by lethal injection sentence. It’s a shame really—a shame that it took so long. Those crimes occurred in 1989, and Davis was sentenced in 1991. So the taxpayers of Georgia, ostensibly including the families and friends of Davis’s victims, picked up the guilty-as-sin S.O.B.’s three squares and a bunk tab for 20 years.
That’s how long the laughably ill-informed and consistently inconsistent anti-death penalty activists, aided by their objectivity-challenged accomplices in the mainstream media, gamed the system to keep a convicted cold-blooded killer breathing. Twenty years.
I say ill informed, because the entire campaign against Davis’s execution was based on misinformation and omitted facts. Case in point: “There was insufficient evidence!” Big lie. Shell casings found at both crime scenes belonged to Davis’s gun, and 34 witnesses testified against him. Case in point number two: “Seven of nine witnesses recanted their testimony!” To that we can pile a “so what?” onto “big lie.” Again, there were 34 prosecution witnesses—not nine as incessantly reported in the media—and the recantations were all discredited. The man was guilty. Period. His conviction and sentence are just. Period. Now he’s worm food. Good riddance.
But what about his rights?!
What about ’em? Rights are a two-way street. We’re all born with the same rights and the deal is we’ll protect and defend yours as long as you respect everybody else’s. Davis broke the contract. He got his fair trial and then some. The answer came up guilty every time.
By the way, Lawrence Russell Brewer was (deservedly) put to death the same night in Texas, 12 years after his equally atrocious crime, but there was nary a word about it. It’s not as pretty when the perp doesn’t fit your poster boy profile, is it?
Then he should just be sent away to prison!
Now we’re getting somewhere. But have you ever considered concentrating your protest energies on reforming our joke of a penal system? That is, stop coddling criminals and start punishing them, and we wouldn’t need a death penalty. I’d be all for that.
But prison is already a horrible place! Nobody wants to go there!
Not horrible enough. First we need to get rid of plea-bargaining and institute some firm sentencing. For example, if you commit first or second degree murder, you’re done. Life. That’s it. No parole, no visitors (conjugal or otherwise), no nothing. You’ll never see the light of day again.
Then, drop the idiotic notion of “rehabilitation” rather than punishment. Right now these convicts can earn college degrees, shoot hoops and work out, and organized crime types can run their operations from inside. Let ’em spend their days either locked in a cell or carrying heavy stones back and forth across the yard for no reason other than to make their lives miserable. How about bringing back the chain gangs like in Cool Hand Luke for lesser convictions than murder? Nobody would want to go there, would they, Boss?
Let everyone know that the only outcome for these crimes is living hell, and watch crime rates drop like a stone. The death penalty would be rendered obsolete. Until that happens, apply it early and often.
When I was young, if my sister and I were eating too fast, my Dad would say, “Whoa, what are you going to the electric chair?” He was insinuating that we were eating like it was our last meal.
That recollection reminded me of something Dudley Bradstreet Ruffalo recounted during an interview last August: “My first death penalty case was back in 1990. My client was the first person in South Carolina to be executed by lethal injection, after the demise of the use of electric chair. Oddly enough, I spent the last few hours with him in his cell. They put a TV nearby and let you watch anything you want, and they let you call anywhere in the world. We watched John Wayne war movies and he spoke to his young relatives asking them not to follow his path. We ate popcorn shrimp from Bojangles’ until his time was up. His name was Michael Elkins.”
On September 22, Troy Davis was put to death in Georgia for killing an off-duty Savannah police officer in 1989. Davis maintained his innocence until the end.
On October 3, Amanda Knox’s murder conviction was overturned, after a four-year fight in which she and her defense team argued her innocence. The death penalty has been banned in Italy since 1948, however, that doesn’t stop my brain from considering the possibility that had Knox been tried and convicted in a state and/or country that supported the death penalty, she could have been sentenced to death and perhaps even executed, all while maintaining her innocence. It is that sliver of doubt that moves me to question the institution of the death penalty.
So, when Frank posed the query, I quickly jumped at the chance to prove him wrong—yet again—and argue against the death penalty.
I didn’t always feel this way. In fact, last year I interviewed the three death penalty certified defense attorneys in Beaufort County, for a C2 story. I admittedly went into that story with a closed mind, as I was in full support of the death penalty. An eye for an eye, I always said. And I believed it.
Then I spent time with attorneys Donald Colongeli, Dudley Bradstreet Ruffalo and Sam Bauer. Listening to their stories and obtaining an understanding of what they do and why they do it was eye opening.
Bauer told me that he knows what his role is: to protect his client; to make sure that the evidence is trustworthy and of value; to afford his client the right to a fair trial; to ensure that the government is not corrupt; and most importantly, to guarantee that an innocent person is not convicted and sentenced to death.
Ruffalo had participated in eight death penalty cases—four for the defense and four as the prosecutor—when I spoke to him last year. He’s seen both sides of the courtroom and admitted to me that he questions the merit of the death penalty all the time, mainly because he says, “What scares me most is that innocent people have been convicted.”
Interestingly, Colongeli started law school as a staunch republican. But, as his education progressed, so did his thought process and he divulged that he became more and more liberal as time passed because of those cases where the defendant may indeed be innocent.
Two hundred eighty-two people have been executed by the State of South Carolina since 1912. Fifty-five people sit on Death Row in South Carolina today. How many of them are innocent? If we review the statistics, the numbers may actually shock you.
It was Dudley Bradstreet Ruffalo who introduced me to the Innocence Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to exonerating the innocent. There have been 273 post-conviction DNA exonerations in United States history (18 since I tackled this topic just a year ago.). Seventeen of those were exonerations of people serving a collective 187 years on death row for crimes they didn’t commit. They were waiting for death, when finally their innocence was proven.
On October 4, 2011, Michael Morton walked out of an Austin, TX courtroom after his 1987 murder conviction was overturned because of new DNA evidence pointing to another man. He lost 24 years of his life. Fortunately, he didn’t receive a death penalty sentence, or he likely would be dead today. I wonder what he had for dinner that night.