Troy Davis was executed last week in the face of considerable doubt as to whether or not he actually committed the murder of retired policeman Mark MacPhail. While many of us watched the final hours with a heart-wrenching sense of injustice, as Paul Campos points out at Lawyers, Guns and Money, “Davis’s execution was a grotesque travesty of justice, but it also resulted in the legally correct outcome, if by ‘legally correct outcome’ one means what law professors usually mean when they ask if a case was ‘correctly decided.’”
What he means is that according to the law, if Davis was unable to demonstrate after his conviction that he hadn’t gotten a full and fair trial (which by most accounts he did), then to get a stay he would have to convince those reviewing his case that he was actually innocent. The tremendous amount of doubt was not enough — he would have needed more proof on his side.
This is the current system we have, and it rests upon the belief that the law and the court system are objective and infallible. If the “law is a supposedly nonpolitical and intellectually rigorous practice,” Campos writes. “[w]hat, after all, could be more nonpolitical and intellectually rigorous than executing an innocent man, simply because ‘the law’ requires that result?” Without reforming the system itself, cases like Troy Davis’s will continue to be a feature, not a bug.
Growing up, I remember having a very strong sense of there being such things as Justice and Fairness that existed as certifiable truths. They could not be assailed by bias or circumstance. There were right and wrong and right always — or almost always — prevailed. I transferred this sense into a belief that judges were simply impartial representatives of just laws — the so-called umpires of Roberts’s words.
Over the years it’s become devastatingly clear to me, however, that judges are imperfect humans with their own opinions that shape their outlook on life, including the law. This is inevitable, after all. No person can escape having a viewpoint shaped by their life experiences and opinions formed along the way — one of the reasons I was excited to see Obama nominate Justice Sotomayor, a Hispanic woman who would bring very different life experiences to the bench than the typical white man.
Indeed, as Garrett Epps pointed out at The American Prospect, many times throughout history it has been those ingrained opinions of particular judges, despite the turning tide of popular opinion, that has kept key social progress in check. (Even if I disagree with his analysis of Roe v. Wade and side with Amanda Marcotte’s take.) Epps calls out the conservative “social-engineering judge with an agenda” that currently populates the Supreme Court. But whether or not today’s judges have gone a bridge too far, no one on the court has ever been an impartial observer. As Justice Kagan wrote in 1995, “It should be no surprise by now that many of the votes a Supreme Court Justice casts have little to do with technical legal ability and much to do with conceptions of value.”
It’s also clear to me that we have a legal system that doesn’t function perfectly and objectively toward all Americans. How can it be just that so many rape cases go nowhere because of a victim’s questionable past — which has no bearing on what actually occurred during the event in question? That 38 percent of prison and jail inmates are African American, even though they make up only 13 percent of the overall population? These are not symptoms of a well-functioning system.
But while these are disheartening facts, what this information should do is free us up to rally around reforming the system. If you still carry the belief that it serves perfect justice every time, then you would see no need to devote efforts toward changing it. But if you understand that it’s an institution made of and by human beings, just like our other branches of government, then it makes more sense to focus energy on making it better and getting rid of the things that aren’t working. Troy Davis himself pointed out that “There are so many more Troy Davis’” that the system isn’t serving. It’s time to put aside the idea that our legal structure is infallible and roll up our sleeves in an effort to make it better.
Bryce Covert is Assistant Editor at New Deal 2.0.
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