Sunday, September 25, 2011

Troy Davis: American Courts are Never Wrong, Right?

Troy Davis was killed last Wednesday, September 21, 2011. Quite legally: the state of Georgia decided that he should be dead, got a second opinion, and filed all the necessary paperwork.

Killing Adults: Legal in Many States

The death of Troy Davis wasn't a random killing. Some folks think Troy Davis killed a police officer, about 22 years back. Unhappily for Mr. Davis, at least one of those people is a judge.

The process isn't, I trust, quite as arbitrary as I made it sound. I'd like to believe that American judges get it right more than half the time, and that juries know the difference between getting their emotions slapped and learning facts.

As for whether or not it's okay to kill someone, if it's to protect others?

Permitted, Not Recommended

The Catholic Church says that killing someone in self defense is permitted: but not recommended. I'd better explain where I stand on murder, capital punishment, and getting a grip:
  • Murder is
    • Deliberately killing an innocent human being
    • Wrong
      (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2261)
  • Self-defense is not an excuse for murder
    (Catechism, 2263)
  • Human life is sacred
    (Catechism, 2258)
    • Including one's own life, so
      • Self-defense is okay
        • Even if it results in the death of an attacker
          (Catechism, 2264)
        • But non-lethal means are preferred
          (Catechism, 2267)

Life, Death and Survival

In some parts of the world folks have their hands full, just surviving. In those circumstances, I think killing someone who had murdered once, and might do so again, could be defensible.

Americans aren't, for the most part, scrambling to find enough food to stay alive another day. Killing people we think might possibly be guilty doesn't seem necessary.1

The Catholic Church and a Big World

The Catholic Church doesn't have a single, one-size-fits-all, rule about capital punishment. That's one of many issues that's left to local and regional leaders.

The Church often teaches what principles law, or some other aspect of life, should follow: without trying to micro-manage all 1,000,000,000-plus living Catholics' lives. This isn't being "vague." I think perceiving the Church as being vague or indecisive comes in part from a sort of parochialism. The Catholic Church is concerned with everybody: not just me and folks in my area.2

Decades of Daft Decisions

I'd like to live in a country where the judicial system made sense,3 where:
  • It wasn't legal to kill babies
  • Juries understood statistics
  • A family hadn't been given $850,000 because baseballs go fast
Sometimes I've felt as if America's courts were trying to be this country's answer to Monty Python's Flying Circus.

But even if I'd lived in an era when "wise judge" didn't sound like an oxymoron, I'd think it's possible for a judge and/or jury to be wrong. When their mistake kills someone? I suppose a nicely-worded 'sorry about that' note to the victim's friends and family might help.

Life, Death, and Perfect Courts?

Troy Davis has been dead for a few days now. He said he was innocent up to the end of his life. Maybe he was right, maybe not. Either way, like I said: he's dead now.

I've run across a few different opinions on Troy Davis and killing people:
  • Opinion, backed by facts: Confidence isn't certainty
    • In the Troy Davis trial
      • Seven of nine eyewitnesses changed their minds
      • Courts apparently decided to go with the original testimony
        • Which had been recanted
    • Are American courts capable of error?
      • Yes
      • Convictions have been reversed
        • In cases involving murder
        • Frequently
    • Leonard Pitts Jr., The Baltimore Sun
  • Opinion, backed by authority: Crime hurts people
  • News: Troy Davis is dead
    • Demonstrators gathered outside a Georgia prison
      • Date - September 21, 2011
      • They
        • Cried
        • Hugged
        • Prayed
        • Held candles
    • Hundreds of thousands held vigils in support of Troy Davis' life
      • Around the world
    • Then the state of Georgia killed Troy Davis
      Associated Press, via
  • Opinion: Troy Davis is guilty
    • Because a court found him guilty in 1991
    • Troy Davis' case got reviewed
      • One of the witnesses was suspicious
        • In the opinion of the reviewing judge
      • Davis' attorneys didn't
        • Prove his innocence
        • Produce the real villain
          • Dramatically
            • Or otherwise
    • So Troy Davis is guilty
      Charles Lane, The Washington Post
You'll find excerpts from recent news and views near the end of this post.4

Life - and Death - in the Real World

I think it would be nice if judges and juries never made mistakes. Sort of like the old Perry Mason television shows.

I live in a world where judges and juries are human beings. Human beings can, in my considered opinion, make mistakes.

Some mistakes can be corrected. I'm pretty sure that it's possible to release someone from prison - with or without a 'sorry for wrongful imprisonment' note.

Other mistakes can be regretted. I'm about as sure as I can be that not even a Supreme Court judge can say,
"by the power of Warren Burger, COME FORTH!"
Well, a judge could say that: but I really don't think we'd see a reenactment of the Lazarus incident. (John 11:1-46)

Related posts:News and views:
  • Self-defense
    Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2263-2267
    • For individuals
      Catechism, 2264)
    • For societies
      Catechism, 2265
  • Death penalty allowed - sometimes
    Catechism, 2267

1 I understand that some Catholics living in America feel like killing people they think shouldn't be alive. I don't agree, but not because I think killers should go free.

My reasons have to do with what I've learned about Catholic teachings, and the remarkable wealth of this country:
2 What the Catholic Church teaches is for everybody:
Folks who expect whatever they read to address their particular social, economic, political, cultural, and geographical circumstances may see what the Catholic Church says as "vague." Particularly when it's a document that's written for all 1,000,000,000+ living Catholics: and anyone else who's interested.

What the Church says about the capital punishment is an example. Killing dangerous people is allowed - but not recommended:
"Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality. Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one's own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow:
"If a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repels force with moderation, his defense will be lawful. . . . Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one's own life than of another's.66"
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2264)

"Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility."
(Catechism, 2265)
Self defense is okay. It can be a duty. But people who are guilty are still people, and the Church doesn't want us to forget that.
"Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

"If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person...."
(Catechism, 2267) [emphasis mine]
The way I explained this to my kids was that the Catholic Church makes rules and guidelines that fit cultures around the world, and throughout the history that's been, and will be. There's got to be a lot of consideration for local circumstances.

3 Crazy lawsuits are becoming the stuff of legend in America. There's entertainment value in tales of soreheads who sue, and judges who give them a hearing: but I think that several generations of stark-raving-moonbat-crazy judicial decisions are at least a potential threat.

A government needs specialists who decide how laws are applied in specific cases. And a nation needs citizens who can respect their government. Or can at least maintain a willing suspension of disbelief.

Links to more about the three regrettable cases I mentioned, followed by my view of them.
Open Season on Babies: 1973

Roe v. Wade was a terrible error, at best. I think it'll go down with the Dred Scott decision as examples of really bad ideas. Interestingly, both involve the notion that some people aren't quite 'people.' Legally.

Silicone, Silliness, and Science

Silicone breast implants may - or may not - be associated with some really rare medical conditions. Botched boob jobs are, in my opinion, a bigger threat to womens' health - and that's another topic.

At the risk of sounding like a capitalist lackey of oppressor classes, a male chauvinist pig, or an insensitive beast, I think the 1984 Stern vs Dow Corning decision was daft. And that the judge may have realized how crazy it was. Of course, there may have been reasonable cause for sealing the evidence:
"...1984 "Stern vs Dow Corning, San Francisco. Case wins on many internal Dow Corning documents that had been discovered in a Dow storage area by attorney Dan Bolton . Maria Stern's systemic autoimmune disease is found by a jury to be caused by her silicone breast implants. Bolton introduces the silicone-induced problems for the first time in court, with 'experts' that theorize the silicone-immune system connection. After a monthlong trial, the jury awards Maria Stern $211,000 in compensatory damages and $1.5 million in punitive damages. The evidence is sealed by a court order.

"June 1988 "Six years after the 1982 proposal, FDA classifies the implants into Class III. Premarket Approval Applications from silicone breast implant manufacturers are due by July 1991. The PMA's must prove affirmatively, with valid scientific data evaluated by the FDA, that their devices are safe and effective. After the PMA's are submitted by the manufacturers, the FDA has 180 days to evaluate the safety data...."
("Chronology of Silicone Breast Implants," PBS)
The FDA is still trying to find evidence that backs up the 'boob jobs threaten women' notion: evidence that doesn't have to be hidden by a judge.

Death by Baseball: Genuinely Sad

I sympathize with the Patch family: their son, Douglas, died after being hit by a baseball. I think that's sad, tragic, and a terrible loss.

I also think that baseballs go fast and can hurt. Or, rarely, kill. The baseball that hit Douglas Patch was propelled by an aluminum bat. Which, I'm told, make baseballs go faster.

I suppose the Patch family thought they'd feel better, if someone gave them $850,000. They may even believe that aluminum baseball bats should have special warning labels. They might, maybe, be right.

But we live in a country where a clear jar of peanuts, labeled "PEANUTS," "INGREDIENTS: PEANUTS...," and "ALLERGY WARNING: CONTAINS PEANUTS" is just one more ridiculously redundant bit of text on the shelves.

Maybe we should have every door labelled, "WARNING! INJURY OR DEATH MAY RESULT IF DOOR NOT OPEN WHILE IN USE;" all sinks emblazoned with "WARNING: DROWNING HAZARD;" and all steak knives equipped with safety guards. Then, after swathing ourselves with bubble wrap, perhaps we'd feel 'safe.'

I've written - and occasionally ranted - about this sort of thing before:
More, about silicone breast implants:
4 Excerpts from news and views:
"Troy Davis execution: A triumph of confidence over truth " Leonard Pitts Jr., The Baltimore Sun (September 25, 2011)

"2000: Frank Lee Smith is posthumously exonerated — he'd died 11 months earlier — 14 years after being convicted of raping and murdering an 8-year-old girl. The eyewitnesses were wrong.

"2001: Charles Fain is exonerated and set free 18 years after being sentenced to death for the kidnapping, rape and murder of a young girl. The scientific testimony was wrong.

"2002: Ray Krone is exonerated and set free 10 years after being sentenced to death for the kidnapping, rape and murder of a bar worker. The scientific testimony was wrong.

"2003: John Thompson is exonerated and set free 18 years after being sentenced to death for murder. The prosecutors hid exculpatory scientific evidence and the eyewitnesses were wrong.

"2004: Ryan Matthews is exonerated and set free five years after being sentenced to death for killing a convenience store owner. The eyewitnesses were wrong.

"2008: Kennedy Brewer is exonerated and set free seven years after being sentenced to death for killing his girlfriend's 3-year-old daughter. The scientific testimony was wrong.

"2010: Anthony Graves is exonerated and set free 18 years after being sentenced to death for the murder of an entire family. The sole eyewitness — who was himself the murderer — lied.

"I could make a much longer list.

"There are literally hundreds of men, and even a few women, who have been exonerated and set free after being sentenced to death, life, 25, 60, even 400 years for awful things they did not do. I could make a longer list, but space is at a premium, and there is more that needs saying here.

"They killed Troy Davis on Wednesday night.

"He went to his death still proclaiming his innocence of the 1989 murder of a Savannah, Ga., police officer. Mr. Davis was convicted on 'evidence' that boiled down to the testimony of nine eyewitnesses, seven of whom later recanted...."

"Top Vatican official condemns execution of Troy Davis" David Kerr, CNA (Catholic News Agency) (September 23, 2011)

"The president of the Vatican's Council for Justice and Peace has condemned the execution of inmate Troy Davis by the state of Georgia on Sept. 21.

" 'My wish in the case of Troy Davis was that it would be a case that aimed at saving life and working on conversion, reintegration and change, rather than elimination. So I wish it had not happened,' Cardinal Peter Turkson told CNA in the hours following the execution.

"The execution of 42-year-old Davis was delayed for hours while the U.S. Supreme Court considered an eleventh-hour appeal for clemency, a plea that was ultimately rejected.

"Davis maintained his innocence in the 1989 fatal shooting of policeman Mark MacPhail until the end. 'I am innocent. I did not have a gun,' he told the slain officer’s family.

" 'For those about to take my life, may God have mercy on your souls. May God bless your souls,' he said before being executed by lethal injection.

" 'I'm not playing down the effect of crime on victims - the pain and the sadness and its ability to destroy society - but should we not aim at healing and also causing a change in somebody's life?' asked Cardinal Turkson.

" 'When we do that (execute a person), it is society which is diminished. The human society less one person is still a reduction of the human society'..."

"Troy Davis Executed; Supporters Claim Injustice" Associated Press, via (September 22, 2011)

"Troy Davis lifted his head and declared one last time that he did not kill a police officer before being executed Thursday, while outside the prison a crowd of more than 500 demonstrators cried, hugged, prayed and held candles.

"Hundreds of thousands of Davis supporters worldwide who took up the anti-death penalty cause as his final days ticked away. They staged vigils in the U.S. and Europe, declaring "I am Troy Davis" on signs, T-shirts and the Internet...."

"Troy Davis: guilty as charged" Charles Lane, PostPartisan, The Washington Post (September 22, 2011)

"Troy Davis' execution is nothing to celebrate. The only satisfaction it offers, if any, is the grim kind that comes from knowing a killer got his just deserts.

"Of course, to opponents of the death penalty, every execution is an outrage. Davis' supporters say this one is worse: the deliberate state killing of a man despite evidence that he is innocent.

"If they’re right, Georgia and all of America should be ashamed.

"But they're wrong: Troy Davis is guilty.

"How can I be so sure? After all, former President Jimmy Carter, Pope Benedict XVI, and former FBI director William Sessions backed Davis. Prosecution witnesses have recanted their testimony; scant physical evidence tied Davis to the crime.

"But it’s one thing to argue your case in the court of public opinion; it's quite another to do so in a real court, with sworn testimony offered and cross-examined by both sides...."


Brigid said...

Is there supposed to be a bullet point before this? "Leonard Pitts Jr., The Baltimore Sun"

Same question. I ask because of the indentation. "Cardinal Peter Turkson, via CNA"

Where's the link? "(1984)
(Public Broadcasting System)"

Missing an 'e' in here: "Maybe we should have very door labelled"

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian Gill said...


I suppose there could be a 'very door,' but there wasn't one here. Not intentionally. Thanks!

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Background:Posts in this blog: In the news:

What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.