I’m watching the streaming video from outside the “Georgia Diagnostic Prison” right now. Just writing that euphemism makes me feel dirty. The Supreme Court has granted a temporary reprieve, but the millions around the world following the story of Troy Davis are left sitting on edge, knowing that the Supreme Court could allow the execution to go forward at any minute. Troy Davis could die while I am writing this.
While the world watches and waits for news on Davis, Lawrence Russell Brewer was put to death in Texas. It’s not particularly surprising that an execution in Texas didn’t raise an eyebrow. At a recent Republican presidential debate, just a statement from the moderator on the enormous number of people executed in Texas under Governor Rick Perry drew a cheer from the crowd. Brewer, though, should be getting more attention than he is. Not because he deserves any attention for who he is. Brewer is one of the men who, in 1998 in Jasper, Texas, dragged James Byrd, Jr. behind his truck. I was in Texas, in the summer before 9th grade, when that senseless act was perpetrated against Byrd. You hear of something so hateful, so violent, and it’s hard not think, “These are the kind of people we have the death penalty for.” Brewer had no final statement before he was executed. The sheriff who investigated the scene of Byrd’s remains scattered down the bumpy asphalt road said, “One down and one to go,” referring to Brewer’s accomplice, John William King, also scheduled to be executed.
Brewer’s execution deserves more attention than it is getting because of who didn’t want it to happen. A million people around the world have signed a petition demanding clemency for Troy Davis, many of those because we believe he may be innocent. There are no such doubts in the case of Lawrence Russell Brewer. There is also no doubt that the crime he committed is exactly the type of heinous crime to which the death penalty is supposed to apply. As easy as it is to hate Brewer, to hate the terrible crime that he committed, to hate his hate, his victim’s son, Ross Byrd, doesn’t want to see him die. “You can’t fight murder with murder,” Byrd said Tuesday. Byrd was joined in his opposition to Brewer’s execution by civil rights activists Dick Gregory and Martin Luther King III.
Troy Davis was pronounced dead at 11:08 Eastern Time. Another black man executed for the death of a white victim, another execution with serious doubt, another round of delay giving the family hope that maybe this time justice will be served. Another victim of the death penalty.
But then my mind goes back to the crime committed by Lawrence Russell Brewer. While walking along the road, James Byrd, Jr. was offered a ride by the three men riding in the pickup truck. “They beat him, and then chained his legs to the back of their pick-up and dragged him for several miles, the report said. By the time they stopped, his head and arm had been ripped off. They left his body on the country road…[P]rosecutors said Brewer and King were prison buddies bent on starting a racist organization in Jasper and ‘intended the killing to be a signal that his (King’s) racist organization was up and running.'” Isn’t the death penalty what this Brewer deserves? Shouldn’t we feel good about giving this man the harshest punishment that our society allows?
Yet, I don’t feel good. I think there are two reasons for that. First, is the overwhelming conclusion that the death penalty is racist and unjustly applied. Studies show that the race of the defendant an/or the race of the victim play a key role in deciding who receives the death penalty, and the fact that most prosecutors seeking the death penalty are white calls into question their ability to see and respond to these trends. But this can’t be the reason that Brewer’s execution feels wrong to me. Brewer is white, and perpetrated a vile hate crime against James Byrd, Jr., who was black. Brewer received the death penalty under a Texas statute that enhances sentences for hate crimes. Troy Davis may have died because he was black; Lawrence Russell Brewer did not.
The second reason the death penalty feels wrong is that I know there is always the possibility of executing an innocent person. Since the death penalty was reinstated in the United States in 1973, well over 100 people have been released from death row because of evidence of their innocence. That is well over 100 people who, were it not for the decades long appeals process and delay in performing executions, would have been murdered by the government for crimes they did not commit. Yet still you here people assert that the problem with the death penalty is that we don’t execute fast enough. Though Rick Perry sleeps well at night confident that it hasn’t happened in Texas, innocent people have been executed in the United States and will continue to be executed as long as the death penalty exists. Troy Davis may have been the latest innocent victim of the death penalty. But Lawrence Russell Brewer was not.
Why then can I not sanction Brewer’s execution? There is no doubt about his guilt and no question that the crime is among the most vile acts of which a human being is capable. There has to be another reason the death penalty is wrong.
Ross Byrd said, “You can’t fight murder with murder.” Maybe the death penalty is just wrong because it’s the death penalty. Maybe every execution, even those like Brewer’s, are tainted by the filth of knowing that the United States is administering a punishment that is racist and can exact the ultimate penalty from innocent victims. Maybe, regardless of all that, it just feels wrong to punish murder with murder, wrong for the state to do what it is saying is the highest crime if committed by others.
I know why I felt the emotions I felt watching the story of Troy Davis unfold tonight. I felt joy when I first of the stay, because I thought, finally, justice may be done for this man. I felt intense sadness at the news of his final execution, because I felt, along with millions around the world, powerless to stop the system from going forward and taking a potentially innocent man’s life. I had watched his sister and his nephew talk about their fight, hopeful that maybe they had finally won it, only to have that hope smashed and the execution go forward.
I’m not as sure why I feel so wrong about the execution of Lawrence Russell Brewer, but I know I wish it hadn’t happened. And imagine that feeling will resurface with every execution from now on. If I can’t feel confident that Brewer should be executed, I can’t imagine a situation in which I would. I also know I am not alone. Millions of people who hoped, and petitioned, and protested, and fought for justice for Troy Davis are now left with the harsh realization of the injustice of the death penalty. We are Troy Davis, and we will be every victim of the death penalty from now on.