Monday, September 26, 2011

Death Penalty II: Troy Davis, Mark MacPhail, And the Need for Vengeance

Massacio's Crucifixion 
Museo Capodimonte, Naples
Sorry for the break in entries!    I was called out of town for a few days—fascinating days that will give me some topics for future entries—but didn’t have a chance to get to this blog while I was gone.  I had wanted to do a follow up on the last entry which was about the Church’s evolving stance on the Death Penalty and to speak to what I find to be particularly heart-wrenching in the case of the judicial murder of Troy Davis who was executed for the 1989 murder of Savannah police officer, Mark MacPhail.   Officer MacPhail, off duty but working as a security guard at a Burger King, was shot when he attempted to stop the pistol whipping of a homeless man, Larry Young, by Sylvester “Redd” Coles outside a nearby pool hall.  The day after the shooting Coles went to the police and accused Troy Davis of having shot MacPhail.  Witnesses agreed that the murderer was wearing  a white shirt.  Thirty-four witnesses testified for the prosecution; nine of those witnesses identified Troy Davis as the man who shot and killed Officer MacPhail.  Seven of those nine witnesses later recanted their testimony claiming that the police had coerced them into testifying against Davis. 
     Was Davis guilty of the murder?  I don’t know.  I certainly can’t second guess a situation about which I know only from reading media accounts.  And I don’t think that is even the issue.   Innocent or guilty, the Troy Davis case doesn’t meet the severely restricted criterion that the Catholic Church has set for a legitimate use of the death penalty.  Sadly it actually meets one criterion that the Church specifically condemns as a “justification” for capital punishment, and that is vengeance.  I understand why police are anxious to find a conviction in a murder, particularly the murder of one of their own.  But when that passion to find the perpetrator implodes into a mindless drive that someone must die—anyone, guilty or not guilty—and a prosecution becomes a matter of anger rather than justice, then use of the death penalty loses any moral credibility to which it may pretend.  What filled me with the greatest heartwrenching was seeing the Anderson Cooper interview of Officer MacPhail’s mother, Anneliese MacPhail.  Mark MacPhail was twenty-seven years old when he was killed.  He had six years with the United States Army behind him.  He was married and had two small children who will never know their father.  I can understand why Anneliese MacPhail has had to cling to her conviction that Troy Davis murdered her son.  She needed answers—any answers—if she is to move on; she has said that she has had no peace since her son’s brutal death.  Will she find it now?  Only she will know.  But how sick a society we are to tell one another that one life can atone for another.  As a historian I cannot but see that this is a marker that we have not advanced beyond those barbaric days of primitive societies that called out for blood feuds and vendetta murder.  In the Law of Moses only death could repay wrongful death.  The Book of Deuteronomy, written about seven centuries before Jesus, declares:  Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot. (Deuteronomy 19:21).     But Christians believe that Jesus has changed that ethic and the Church has specifically ruled out vengeance as a moral option for the use of Capital Punishment.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church declares: “In the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord recalls the commandment, ‘You shall not kill,’ and adds to it the proscription of anger, hatred, and vengeance.”  It continues on to say “If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means.  In his 1999 visit to the United States, John Paul II called unequivocally for an end to the Death Penalty in this country.  Unfortunately the pope’s plea is only a matter of historical note and even the Church in this country remains silent on the issue of judicial murder. 

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