There were two state-sanctioned executions in the United States on September 21, 2011. In Georgia, Troy Anthony Davis, an African American man, was put to death for the 1989 murder of Savannah police officer Mark MacPhail. In Texas, Lawrence Brewer, a white supremacist, was executed for his participation in the racist hate crime dragging murder of James Byrd in Jasper in 1998. As theologians, scholars, and social justice advocates who participate in the public discussion of Catholic theology, we protest the state-sanctioned killings of both of these men, and we call for the abolition of the death penalty in the US.
Davis’ execution is particularly troubling for it shines a stark light upon many longstanding concerns about capital punishment in the US. We mourn the death of Officer MacPhail and express our deepest sympathies to his family for their tragic loss. However, we believe that a grave miscarriage of justice took place with Davis’ execution. As many legal experts have pointed out, including former FBI Director and federal judge and prosecutor William S. Sessions, serious doubt remains about Davis’ guilt. Until his last breath he maintained his innocence. The failure of the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles, a Federal Appeals Judge, the Georgia Supreme Court, and the U.S. Supreme Court to grant Davis a new trial reveals a deeply flawed justice system. We therefore call upon lawmakers and President Obama to immediately repeal the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which created the legal conditions for executing a man whose guilt was not established beyond reasonable doubt.
Even those who do not share our faith convictions ought to recognize, as Justice William J. Brennan put it, “the death penalty is imposed not only in a freakish and discriminatory manner, but also in some cases upon defendants who are innocent.” The horrific legacy of lynching in the US casts its evil shadow over current application of the death penalty. Studies have shown that black defendants are more likely to receive the death penalty. In many states with capital punishment, defendants are from 3 to 5 times more likely to be executed if their victim was white. In states that retain the death penalty, 98 percent of district attorneys are white and only 1 percent are black. Execution is also irrevocable, and innocent people have likely been victims of it. Since 1973, 138 persons have been exonerated from death row, most of whom were people of color and economically poor. [more]