And Justice for All?

Each school morning my two children have to stand up and recite a little ditty about “justice and liberty for all.” Now I accept that this probably gives me the creeps because, being British, I was raised in a culture which makes rather less hoopla about flags and so on. But today, it isn’t just that. I am a resident of Georgia.

Tuesday’s judicial killing of Troy Davis in my home state has made me think about that phrase a little more, and what it actually means as it is trotted out everywhere from the morning pledge, to Fox News.

America took the decision, in the face of world wide condemnation and calls for caution, to execute a man despite serious doubts as to his guilt. The lack of physical evidence, the singular reliance on visual identification evidence, and then the recanting of 7 out of 9 witnesses; none of this was enough to stay the execution.

The case shines a bright light on to the workings of the American justice system. Why does this powerful, civilized, industrial nation still have a medieval definition of justice?

Everyone knows of course about Texas being the keenest to execute, it being a fact which even raises cheers at certain Republican gatherings. But the South in general still cleaves to this revengeful from of criminal justice.

And lets be clear, it is about revenge. The notion that it in any way acts as a deterrent has been debunked by one study after another. In 2010 the FBI Uniform Crime Report showed that the South had the highest murder rate in the US, and yet it accounts for over 80% of executions.

The death penalty has been rejected as a form of ‘justice’ in pretty much every other modern industrialized nation. A grown- up nation rejects it on philosophical grounds; one must rise above the instinctive urge to get even. Justice at its purest should be about a belief in the Rule of Law, a demonstration that wrong-doers, even murderers, should be apprehended and contained, but without a descent into the vey killing which is abhorred.

The US conspicuously rejected this approach back in May 2011 of course, when Osama Bin Laden finally met his fate. America called it justice; a few voices pointed out that gunning a man down in his bedroom isn’t exactly “bringing him to justice”, despite the fact that it was clearly just. But look, fair game, we gave you that one- he was after all a self confessed, mass-murdering terrorist ba****d.  But in your own backyard you need to try a little harder. A countries’ own citizens should expect more than a knee jerk vengeance as justice.

So, the practical reason that the death penalty has to be rejected is that the administration of justice makes mistakes. Here in the South those mistakes can sometimes seem endemic if you are poor, lacking in education, or black. The Innocence Project cites 17 cases where DNA evidence produced post conviction has led to the exoneration of those poised to die. Even without the magic of DNA, some 138 people have been released and exonerated from death row since 1973. And all those 138 (and rising) count, don’t they? How does it go again, justice for all…

And yet still for the majority of Americans the notion of justice means a system which clings to judicial killing. At the death penalty prom America is looking out of place- there are going to be some awkward moments- standing at the buffet with Iran and Yemen, a quick snapshot with Saudi Arabia. India is here (doing the lighting and IT) and China too (they own the venue of course) but one could say they are still politically and economically emergent nations.  There’s only Japan , they tend to be at the dos you usually hang out at, but then they have a famously low crime rate per capita anyway, so they are no fun.

So maybe its time for America to think again about what a criminal justice system really ought to look like in the 21st century, in a modern, compassionate and civilized country.  And maybe the South and this very beautiful state of Georgia can make world headlines again for the right reasons.

ANUJA SAUNDERS is a one time lawyer and ethicist from Britain and currently live in Georgia. 

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