Georgia carried out the execution we discussed the other day; I've been thinking about it a great deal. The Atlantic has a long piece on the philosophical underpinnings of the death penalty in America, which may be worth reading.
There is no compelling reason to believe that Troy Davis was innocent, as is being attested so strongly by so many today. He fled Savannah on the date of the crime; and the gun he allegedly used to shoot off-duty officer McPhail was supposed to be the same gun he had used to shoot another man in the face earlier that night. His membership in the crowd of people who might shoot someone in the face -- that is, his gangsterism -- is not in dispute. He begged the jury, on conviction, for "another chance," which is not suggestive of innocence. Seven of the nine eye-witnesses recanted their testimony after the trial; but on the other hand, it is to their benefit in street culture to say they were pressured by police to testify versus standing up for having helped the law convict. One of the non-recanting witnesses allegedly boasts about having been the real killer; but again, in the culture we're talking about, such boasting has a demonstrable benefit. It raises your stature. Since there's no danger of prosecution -- the case is cleared by arrest and conviction -- why not boast? There's benefit but no cost.
There are a couple of things that are suggestive, though. One that may be unconvincing to many is Mr. Davis' refusal of a final meal or a prayer: he seems to have been convinced that things would work out for him, which suggests a strong faith. One that may be more convincing to most is that no .38 caliber pistol was ever found to link to Mr. Davis; whereas the braggart admitted to having one in his possession at the time of the crime. Oddly, it was not produced for ballistics testing. Why not?
Ultimately it may well be the case that my state, Georgia, has just executed an innocent man. It may also be that he was guilty. We do not know. The lawful process was followed with complete thoroughness; all the safeguards tested, but in the end they did not serve to stop a questionable killing.
I've been spending a fair amount of time rereading John Locke, who (like Kant!) is a big fan of capital punishment. I begin to doubt that our system of government is legitimate enough to carry out an execution; at least, I think it is not legitimate enough in cases when a person has not explicitly accepted the social contract. For a traitor, who has sworn an oath and breaks it? Yes. But for someone who has never agreed to be governed? It will not do to say, as Socrates did, that they have accepted the benefits and are therefore bound as slaves to the state; that cannot hold in an era in which you are no longer free to move to, and live in, another country without explicit permission in the form of a visa. To say that you are bound by the contract whether you consent or not is to say that it is not a contract. It is an imposition by force, which by our tradition means that it is no contract at all.
Mr. Davis, at the age of twenty, clearly did not accept the contract: he was a gangster, part of a society that explicitly rejects the law. Perhaps he accepted the contract with the necessary explicitness when he surrendered to the police without a fight, accepting his life in exchange for the wager of trial and conviction.
To kill a fighting enemy is fair and honest; to kill a prisoner helpless is a morally dangerous act. Better for him to have died twenty years ago with a gun in his hand: better for him and for us. Instead he surrendered to our justice, and now we have given what we have of it to offer: binding a man with chains, and then poisoning him while he cannot resist.
UPDATE: For those interested in the strength of the evidence, the Federal opinion on the evidence is here. (H/t Clayton Cramer, who points out that one of the non-recanting eyewitnesses was a US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel -- certainly not a likely subject for police intimidation, and an officer whose word we would normally rely on in other life-or-death contexts.)