Writing in yesterday’s Telegraph
, Brendan O’Neill highlighted an apparent hypocrisy surrounding the recent, unsuccessful campaign to prevent the execution in Georgia of Troy Davis
The article is short, and makes its point pithily. Here’s what Brendan had to say:
Yesterday in America, two men were executed, but you will probably only have heard of one of them: Troy Davis, who was killed in the state of Georgia for the murder of a police officer. The other executed man, Lawrence Brewer, put to death in the state of Texas for murdering a black man in 1998, has barely featured in the news at all. Unlike Davis, he did not win the backing of Amnesty International and its trendy supporters.
There follows a little fluff about the lack of activity on Twitter about Brewer in comparison to Davis, by which O’Neill implies a criticism of online activism especially. He soon returns to his central argument:
But if you are opposed to the death penalty on principle, as many of the Troy Davis campaigners claimed to be, then you should be just as outraged by the execution of Brewer as you were by the execution of Davis.
Once again, Twitter comes in for some flack: “Even James Byrd Jr’s son asked for the state of Texas to show mercy to his father’s killer, but no army of bleeding-heart Twitterers backed him up.”
The argument is disingenuous; it’s unlikely that the execution of an apparently innocent man would cause equal outrage to that of a man whose guilty has been proved. This is human nature. But, as Brendan says, the principle should remain the same for both, that capital punishment is wrong; if the belief is held on principle, that is.
The airbrushing of Brewer from yesterday’s heated discussions on the death penalty speaks volumes about the Troy Davis campaign. It seems pretty clear that it was motivated, not by a principled, across-the-board opposition to the state killing of citizens, but rather by campaigners’ desire to indulge in some very public moral preening.
What message should we take from this disparity in campaigning? That Troy Davis did not deserve to die but Lawrence Brewer did? Such moral flightiness, such brutal arbitrariness, reveals much about today’s very changeable campaigners against the death penalty.
On the face of it, despite the partisan manner in which O’Neill addresses the issue (and why not? A writer is entitled to preach to their own choir) the criticism that is raised is in itself a substantial one, and should be addressed. So here goes:
As well as the killing by Georgia of Troy Davis, I oppose the killing of Lawrence Brewer by the state of Texas, which happened on the 21st September 2011.
Now that I’ve committed myself to this position, I should probably explore the background of the Brewer case. Here we go.
In 1998 Brewer, a member of a white supremacist gang, along with John William King and Shawn Berry, tied James Byrd Jr, a black man, to the back of a pick up truck with a length of chain. Apparently, Byrd was known in the local area – Jasper, a town 125 miles north of Houston – as someone who lived on disability support; witnesses testified that he was seen riding in the bed of a pickup truck a few hours before his death. Finding an isolated stretched of road Brewer, King and Berry beat Byrd and dragged him for several miles until he was dead. Billy Rowles, the state trooper who found the body, at first thought he’d encountered animal road-kill. (Here’s an article from the San Francisco Chronicle
which deals with the case in more depth).
Nevertheless, I oppose the death penalty for Lawrence Brewer.
This is not because I consider the crime he committed to be excusable; I think it’s cruel and abhorrent. The outrage the murder caused in the US, and the changes to the law it brought
, implies that most people naturally share this opinion. I oppose the death penalty because I simply think that punishing a killing with a killing results from and, in turn, reinforces an image of justice that is shallow, ineffective and, in its focus, essentially nonremedial. In essence, I believe it won’t fix the problem.
It’s been said of freedom of speech that, in supporting it, sooner or later you’ll end up supporting the right of arseholes to say the things that arseholes say. The things that arseholes say being, of course, a large part of what makes them arseholes. Likewise, opposing the death penalty on principle
means opposing the execution of the guilty as well as the innocent.
Many have given solid reasons as to why Davis’ sentence was dubious at best. Seven of the nine witnesses who testified against him later recanted their testimony. Others stated under oath that they had witnessed another man committing the killing; others revealed that they’d been cajoled by police
into testifying against Davis, while still others were found to be illiterate, and hence incapable of reading the police statements which they had signed (more here
). On this basis, to convict Davis, let alone condemn him to death, is utterly misguided.
But I also think to make these points concerning guilt or innocence (however correct or well-intentioned) is to miss the point, and acquiesce to a too-narrow field of discussion. I agree with O’Neill as far as to say that opposing the death penalty for Davis only on the – highly probable – basis that he was innocent is misguided – though very far from, as O’Neill seems to think, unworthy.
What is centrally important, to me, about the both cases – Brewer’s and Davis’ – is not a question of guilt or innocence – judgement of individuals – nor the fact that the sentencing of the latter was enacted on evidence that was readily apparent as being flimsy, insubstantial – judgement of the appropriateness of capital punishment in some cases – but rather that the meting out of capital punishment in both cases sought in no way to address the essential problem: the originations of the crime itself.
In fact, it’s interesting to me that Davis’ case is, in some ways, a weak basis on which to argue against the death penalty on principle
, because the essence of the problem in Davis’ case is not the execution itself, but that it represents the end result of a grievous miscarriage of justice. That miscarriage is, in itself, the essence of the problem, with the extremity of the consequent punishment only adding to the horror, the disgust of it. Brewer’s case, on the other hand, does not appear to have been so miscarried; his guilt is not disputed. But, in respect of the fact that his death will in no way address the causes of the crime, the essential problem to be solved, I think his case speaks more loudly of the issue.
The enactment of the death penalty stems from an image of justice that is predominantly retributory: that its ultimate end is to mete out appropriate punishment. A form of balance is sought – crimes of increasing magnitude are met with sentences of increasing magnitude culminating, in some places
, in a life for a life
. There is a certain logic, a symmetry, to this; but the aim of such a justice system is essentially focussed on addressing symptoms, not causes. Slamming barn doors is no more effective in catching horses than simply shutting them.
The issue comes about from a conception of human behaviour – especially with respect to ethics – that places altogether too much emphasis on personal agency and individual choice. A quote by the sister of James Byrd, Clara Taylor, in the San Francisco Chronicle article linked to above is exemplary of this attitude:
“He had choices,” she said Tuesday, referring to Brewer. “He made the wrong choices.”
We live in a society wherein the individual’s ability to exercise choice
– especially rational
choice – is a central conceptual foundation. As a consumeristic society, it’s perhaps inevitable that advertising and marketing provide a solid example of this. The presentation of advertising to consumers is justified on the basis that adverts – so long as they are governed by standards of accuracy and fairness – provide a means by which individual consumers can make informed choices as to which products to buy. It’s telling that, in a database of commonly-used advertising slogans ‘used by the top ten agencies in London’, the most ‘overworked line’ is ‘The natural choice’
. Indeed, the word ‘choice’ itself is reportedly the twentieth most-used word in advertising slogans
; other words on the list include ‘best’, ‘better’, ‘most’ and ‘only’ – all terms that, in implying a comparison, also imply a choice-making process on the part of the viewer.
And yet, at the same time as reinforcing the notion of individual choice, the producers of adverts make use of techniques that tacitly acknowledge that the decisions of human beings – which products to buy, which brand to commit to – derive from deeper determining
factors in the human mind. Ad campaigns don’t focus on essaying the strengths of the product, or even its uses, but rather in constructing the notion of an ideal existence – replete with comfort, leisure and success – to which ownership of the product, by implication, will provide access. Otherwise, why such innovations as product placement
, celebrity endorsement, the ubiquity of ‘sex sells
‘ (as a wise man once said: ‘They like it. And they’re shagging.
‘)? If the rational decisions of the individual consumer are the prime motivator of their buying habits, why employ such suggestive
angles of approach? Why not simply state why the product is (a) effective and (b) affordable, and leave it at that?
The same principle is applied in politics. Party image, as manifested in the form of the leader, is the selling point, rather than policy. In a situation such as the UK’s, in which the three central parties all agree on the central role of politics – the primacy of the economy and a shared, broad subscription to the goals of consumerism – and differ only in the niceties within this narrow spectrum, how else can parties be sold?
I recall, for example, the mild furore over David Cameron’s 2010 NHS campaign posters; a great deal of the commentary was upon the extent to which ‘Call-me-Dave’ (an Ad-man’s air if e’er I heard it) was airbrushed
, rather than the content of the policy issue. (In fact, this misguided approach was necessitated by the campaign itself, which provided no concrete policy, but only a glib and, as it turns out, misleading commitment to ‘protect the NHS’. How?
This is why stories that politicians may have, for example, engaged in dodgy activities such as drug use
, are seized upon with such glee by their opponents. It isn’t a case of style over substance but, all too often, style supplanting
substance, politicians supplanting policies, to the extent that style becomes a focus of criticism equally valid
to substance. We are asked to exercise choice between a set of alternatives whose differences are, in the main, vanishingly narrow, while being courted and groomed by the interested parties in ways that cynically acknowledge the inability of individuals to exercise disinterested, rational choice at all.
So here, after this wide diversion, I can return to the issue of justice.
Again, Clara Taylor’s words, concerning Brewer, her brother’s murderer: “He had choices; he made the wrong choices.” (I feel I should emphasise that I don’t choose to repeat these words because I believe the relatives of murder victims don’t deserve justice – only arseholes could hold such an opinion – but because Taylor’s words serve as a perfect summary of the conceptual foundation that underpins the kind
of justice that is applied.)
Looking into his background, it’s interesting to note that Brewer, prior to Byrd’s murder, served a prison sentence for cocaine possession and burglary; having been released in 1991, he broke the conditions of his parole three years later and was re-incarcerated (Brewer apparently spent most of his adult life in prison
). While in prison Brewer met John King, later one of the co-murderers of Byrd; it’s reported that he, Brewer, joined a white supremacist gang whilst in prison, in order to safeguard himself from other inmates. This is attested to on Wikipedia
but the citation is broken, unfortunately, so I don’t know whether to trust the information. Elsewhere, however, it is
reported that Brewer’s racist views, at the least, did develop while he was inside
Other sources besides report that King, Brewer’s aforementioned friend and fellow murderer of Byrd, did join a white supremacist gang while in prison, having suffered repeated gang-rapes at the hands of black inmates
. The same source states that King’s exposure to this abuse was the result of a conspiracy between the very gang he later joined and the prison’s guards.
King was released in July 1997, Brewer in September. In June of the following year, Byrd was killed.
Following the discovery of the crime, the house shared by Brewer, King and Shawn Berry, the third murderer, was found to contain a great deal of ‘racial separatist organization paraphernalia
Had he not been sent to prison for his earlier crimes, it appears reasonable to suggest that Brewer would not have been exposed to the extreme racism therein; certainly, King would not have suffered the sexual abuse that he did suffer, and perhaps wouldn’t have come to be possessed by racial hatred. It hardly stretches the bounds of credibility to suggest that the murder of Byrd would not, as a consequence, have occurred. That perhaps the suffering of Taylor, of all of Byrd’s relatives and friends, need not have occurred. This is not to say that the earlier crimes that Brewer committed – burglary, drug possession – didn’t warrant the attention of justice but that, when a later, much more serious and horrific crime seems to have been committed as a consequence of earlier incarceration
, there may be a wider problem concerning how we view accountability, agency, ‘choice’ and ‘influence’, and what constitutes an effective remedy, that needs to be considered. The three-strike rule
currently operating in 24 US states (under which one is required
to be sentenced to life imprisonment for committing a felony, no matter how trivial, after two prior convictions) makes sense only by subscribing to the notion that an individual’s repeated crimes derive from repeated choices
, not from the wider conditions within which they find themselves lodged. That these conditions can include the penal system itself is a final, cruel irony.
The problem with the death penalty is, to me, as said, an extension of a wider problem: that our idea of justice derives from a concept of personal accountability that places all
the responsibility for a crime on the person who committed it, without seeking to address the wider conditions that preceded and influenced them. Their choice
, we say, without acknowledging that an individual’s choices cannot be unconditioned
, but derive from countless influences external to themselves and antedating the act for which they are to be punished. But if we acknowledge this, doesn’t it make more sense to seek to address the conditions that gave rise to the crime – how to deal with minor criminal offences, drug problems, social inequalities – than to slam the door when it’s too late? How to prevent
suffering, rather than simply trying to balance suffering out
So, one more time, just to be clear:
I oppose the death penalty for both Troy Davis, innocent, and Lawrence Brewer, guilty.