Modern morality: an opposition to the death penalty

“Today is a tragic day in our nation’s history,” Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck said. “Troy Davis was executed in spite of serious doubt about his guilt.” This doubt, which has spread through communities worldwide, resulted in thousands upon thousands of signatures on behalf of Davis, though they made no impact on the court’s decision.

Davis was sentenced to death for the 1989 murder of police officer Mark MacPhail, and on Sept. 21 at the age of 42, he was executed in Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison while hundreds of sign-wielding demonstrators stood outside in protest. The outrage over Davis’ execution stems from what many believe is an unfair sentence, especially in light of trial jurors changing their minds about his guilt and seven of the nine eyewitnesses recanting their accounts.

“Eyewitness identification is not perfect,” New College Professor of Psychology and litigation consultant Brooke Butler said. “People have been wrongfully convicted on the basis of eyewitness identification, and now, wrongfully executed.”

So if the case against Davis ended up being such a weak one, why did the court carry out the execution?

“If they admit that they got [this case] wrong, then they would have to admit they probably have gotten it wrong on other cases,” Butler said. “They’d have to admit they’re probably getting it wrong in cases that are being litigated right now. They’d have to admit the system doesn’t work properly.

“I think imagining that is so horrific for them that they would rather deny it completely,” Butler added.

According to New College alum Rosa Greenbaum (’93), who has been a capital defense appeals investigator for the last 12 years, there is “much debate about the actual rate of wrongful conviction in the criminal justice system in general and whether it is higher or lower in death penalty cases. Reasonable estimates put it at three to five percent, but I believe it could be higher.”

Greenbaum is co-teaching Anthropology, Social Justice and The Law this semester. She added that she has “no doubt that there are indeed innocent people currently awaiting execution, and no doubt that innocents have been executed since the death penalty was resurrected in the wake of Furman v. Georgia, the United States Supreme Court decision that mandated a reprieve fromdeath sentencing in the country between 1972 and 1976.”

Florida state representative Michelle Vasilinda (D – Tallahassee) has filed a bill in the hopes of ending the death penalty in Florida due to what she said are “growing concerns over the possible execution of wrongfully convicted prisoners.”

These concerns are also economically driven. Florida spends an estimated $50 million a year on death penalty cases. Vasilindi said that that amount of money could be spent employing “law enforcement officers on Florida’s streets” and “adding more FDLE investigators and equipment to our arsenal against crime.”

The media plays a large role when it comes to the portrayal of convicted prisoners, and Butler believes that fair coverage on all sides is lacking. “When it’s our turn to present the mitigation, the media literally packs up and goes home,” Butler said.

What can be seen as a biased approach in news coverage has the power to affect not only those directly involved with the case, but also the community as a whole. “I don’t think the general public realizes how arbitrarily the death penalty is still applied and how many extralegal factors determine who receives it,” Greenbaum said. “Race, class and gender biases have not been eliminated. Many of the people who have been sentenced to death, while not factually innocent, are innocent of the death penalty.”

Greenbaum added that the suffering “created by the process that leads to execution” is often underreported as well. “Jurors agonize, and the condemned often have law-abiding family members whose pain is never recognized or validated,” she said.

There are also families of victims who “do not want to see a killer executed,” Greenbaum said. “But those wishes are disregarded at the prosecutor’s discretion.” Such was the case with Russell Brewer, who was executed in Texas on the same night as Davis.

Brewer was sentenced to death for the 1998 murder of James Byrd, Jr., in which Brewer took part in chaining the victim to the back of a truck and dragging him to his death. Ross Byrd, the son of the victim, objected to the death sentence for Brewer.

“You can’t fight murder with murder,” Byrd said. “Life in prison would have been fine. I know he can’t hurt my daddy anymore. I wish the state would take in mind that this isn’t what we want.”

This mentality is not always the case though. Jeneane Skeen, daughter of Coral Gables police officer Luis Pena, who was murdered in 1978, commented on the convicted Manuel Valle’s execution on Sept. 28. “We finally got revenge on the lowlife piece of human waste that murdered our father,” she said.

Even in cases such as these, in which the defendant is proven guilty, some feel that the death penalty is still an inhuman sentence and should be abolished, especially considering that the methods of executions cannot always be trusted to work properly. This was an argument presented by the lawyers of Valle, who was the first prisoner to be executed in Florida using the new lethal injection drug pentobarbital.

“There’s no guarantee that it will work the way the state is saying it will,” Suzanne Keffer, lead attorney for Valle, told the Catalyst.

Keffer recalled the 2006 botched execution of her client Angel Nieves Diaz, which took over half an hour to complete.

“The IVs were inserted wrong,” Keffer said. “They went through his veins into the soft tissue. He was feeling the suffocating effects of the second drug. The third drug creates an intense burning, so he was probably feeling that as well.

“Obviously that person putting the IVs in didn’t know what they were doing, and the executioners that continued to pump the drugs into him even though he was awake certainly had no clue what they were doing,” she continued.

Keffer, who strongly opposes the death penalty, said that life in prison would have been a more appropriate sentence for Valle. While some argue that life in prison means letting off convicted prisoners too easily, Butler disagrees by saying that life in prison is a very “tough existence” riddled with both isolation and violence.

For students who want to get involved and learn more about the death penalty, there are many outlets. “There are so many agencies that could use assistants,” Butler, who did her first internship at the public defender’s office in Miami, said. There are also “many different graduate programs around the country that have social justice interests and do research that will further the knowledge we have in that field.”

Students may also want to look into a division of the American Psychological Association (APA) called the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI), an organization currently “working with our membership to promote new research pertaining to hate crime legislation before Congress,” according to their website,

“I do believe the worth of a society is not determined by the way we treat our celebrated members, but by the way we treat our condemned,” Butler concluded.

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