Georgia should raise standards for imposing death penalty 

Convicts should not be executed if evidence leaves room for doubt

Troy Davis maintained his innocence until the very end. Strapped to the gurney on which he was executed last Wednesday night, Davis turned to the family of Mark MacPhail, the off-duty Savannah police officer he was convicted of killing two decades earlier, and said, "[D]espite the situation you are in, I'm not the one who personally killed your son, your father, your brother. I am innocent."

In contrast to most convicted murderers, Davis' claims of innocence were lent credence by multiple witness recantations, the emergence of another possible suspect, and the fact that no physical evidence had been used to convict Davis, save for some shell casings a ballistics expert testified linked him to the crime. "Too much doubt" was the mantra of the human rights proponents who became Davis' champions. People all over the world have expressed the concern that Georgia might have put an innocent man to death.

Now that the state's punishment has been meted out, the question is whether Davis' case made Georgia's largely conservative legislature more circumspect when it comes to the death penalty. The answer, very likely, is no. Capital punishment is still hugely popular among conservative voters — evidenced by the cheers presidential hopeful Rick Perry received upon mentioning the execution of prisoners at a recent debate. In the aftermath of a questionable execution, if the state won't repeal the death penalty, it at least needs to re-examine its standards.

Currently, whether a defendant is subject to the death penalty depends almost entirely on the nature of the crime of which he's accused rather than the strength of the case against him. That the state can kill a person in the total absence of physical evidence — Davis was convicted without DNA evidence or a murder weapon, just witness testimony — is unconscionable. Statistics show that in recent years, juries have grown increasingly unwilling to sentence people to death when a case is shaky. But many of the prisoners now coming up for execution were convicted decades ago, when high-crime paranoia was at its zenith and a larger majority of the population supported capitol punishment.

In 2008, after a jury decided that Brian Nichols would spend life in prison rather than be executed for his deadly shooting spree at the Fulton County courthouse, conservative lawmakers attempted — unsuccessfully — to remove the requirement that all 12 jurors unanimously recommend the death penalty. In the Nichols case, there was no doubt he committed the murders. Still, the cause of public safety would not be served by making it easier to execute people. Nichols will spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole, a sentence that's been touted even by former death penalty proponents. Don Heller, the California legislator responsible for reinstating capital punishment in that state in the '70s, recently opined in the Los Angeles Daily News: "Life without parole protects public safety better than a death sentence ... It's a lot cheaper, it keeps dangerous men and women locked up forever, and mistakes can be fixed."

To those who doubted Troy Davis' guilt, his execution was a mistake — one that certainly can't be fixed. Davis' guilt or innocence aside, the real mistake would be for Georgia to continue to execute people when the cases against them leave lingering doubts.

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