Lately, the headlines have been filled with stories about capital punishment in America, putting the death sentence on trial by public opinion.
Troy Davis was put to death in Georgia on Wednesday, after the Supreme Court refused to grant him a stay of execution. The case has stirred up a lot of controversy and accusations of injustice. In 1991 Davis was sentenced to death for the murder of a policeman, but doubts about his guilt surfaced after many of the witnesses who testified against Davis retracted their statements (claiming they were coerced by the police to implicate Davis) and doubts were raised about the way his case was handled by prosecutors. Despite the fact that Davis always maintained that another man at the scene was responsible for the shooting and no physical evidence was ever recovered linking Davis to the shooting, his attempts to get a retrial had been persistently rejected by state and federal courts. Finally, after the Supreme Court intervened, he was granted a hearing in front of a federal judge, but that judge ruled that in order to overturn his conviction Davis had not only to show that the evidence proving his guilt was questionable, but provide positive proof of his innocence. Many legal experts took issue with this ruling, claiming it set the bar for a retrial too high.
While the case has provoked a lot of criticism in the US, it is interesting to note the extent of the outrage in drew from Western Europe, which has long denounced the death penalty in the US. The case got continuous coverage in the French and British media, where it was framed as a racial issue: a black man unjustly convicted of killing a white man in a southern state. Hundreds of people gathered outside of US embassies in London and Paris to protest the execution. Many European statesmen called the execution “inhumane” and “barbaric”. According to a French Historian from the Institute of Political Studies in Paris, the French consider the abolition of the death penalty to be “an established norm of modern society”. However it is interesting to note that while France has been critical of what it sees as human rights abuses in the American justice system, a new law passed by France banning the full body veil worn by some Muslim women, has also been drawing heat.
In other capital punishment news, the Supreme Court recently halted the execution of a man in Texas, after his lawyer claimed that race played an improper role in his sentencing. During the man’s trial, a psychologist testified to the effect that black people were more likely to commit violence. While the man’s guilt is not being contested, his lawyers say that the psychologist’s testimony unfairly influenced the jury.
Texas has recently made a change to the way it handles executions, but only in as much as itsprisons will no longer serve a “last meal” to those about to be executed. The decision to do away with the last meal practice came after a lawmaker expressed outrage over the extravagant, 9-course “last meal” ordered by Lawrence Russell Brewer, saying that death row inmates should not be “treated like celebrities” before they are executed.