AT THE Republican candidates' debate on September 7th, Brian Williams, the moderator, noted that while Rick Perry has governed Texas, the state has executed more criminals than any other state: 234. The crowd cheered. At least one of the men whose executions Mr Perry oversaw appears to have been innocent. Under Mr Perry's watchTexas has killed the mentally ill, criminals who were juveniles when they committed their crimes, and criminals who lacked adequate counsel. In answering Mr Williams, Mr Perry said that "when someone commits the most heinous of crimes against our citizens...you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas. And that is, you will be executed." The crowd cheered again. Some said the crowd was "cheering death". I don't think that's true. Or rather, it may be literally true, but it is a rather sneering and unhelpful caricature. James Taranto wrote that the applause was "less sanguinary than defiant"—they were expressing contempt for "the liberal elite" that opposes the death penalty. This is more plausible, though it does imply that they were cheering themselves for cheering the death penalty, which is hardly more comforting. Perhaps they were also cheering the notion of retribution. The idea that if you do wrong you get what's coming to you animates Westerns and crime fiction, both distinctly American genres; small wonder it should find fertile political ground too. But here's the thing: life is not a movie or a novel. Reality has no obligation to provide us with a clear narrative or villain, and it rarely does.
Take the case settled yesterday in Georgia. Mark MacPhail, a 27-year-old police officer and former Army Ranger working off-duty as a security guard, was fatally shot in the chest on August 19th, 1989 in a parking lot in Savannah, Georgia, after intervening in an argument between a homeless man, Larry Young, and another man named Sylvester Coles. MacPhail was shot twice, and never drew his gun. Two years later Troy Davis (pictured) was convicted of killing MacPhail. He was sentenced to death. His conviction rested almost entirely on witness testimony, much of it conflicting. No gun was recovered, and ballistics testimony linking the shell casings found at the scene to a gun fired at a party that Mr Davis had attended earlier that night was shaky. Since his conviction seven of the nine witnesses have recanted their testimony. Mr Young claims the police coerced him into identifying Mr Davis as the shooter. He received two stays of execution, in 2007 and 2008. But his appeal for a new trial was denied. Following a two-day evidentiary hearing a judge denied his claim of innocence. Last March the US Supreme Court rejected his appeal. On September 20th the Georgia Parole Board denied his request for clemency. Late Wednesday night, at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification prison in Jackson, the state killed him.
Davis's supporters began gathering there late Wednesday morning, anchored by the Davis family but buoyed by busloads of college students from Atlanta. A church down the street from the prison hosted a rally. Speaker after speaker harped on the same two points, one sound and one largely but not wholly irrelevant. The former, of course, concerned the injustice of the death penalty and the large amount of doubt concerning Mr Davis's guilt. He was effectively killed on the word of nine people, seven of whom changed their minds. Reports said that Georgia's parole board, which denied Mr Davis clemency on Monday, split 3-2 on that decision. Eyewitness testimony is profoundly unreliable; that it, and only it, was used to kill someone is unjust on its face and sets a terrible precedent.
The largely irrelevant point concerned the large numbers of supporters Mr Davis had around the world. We were told that rallies were held in Europe and across America, that hundreds of thousands of people had signed petitions, that death-penalty supporters such as Bob Barr and William Sessions (a former Georgia congressman and a former FBI director) and luminaries such as Jimmy Carter and the pope all opposed Mr Davis's execution. But the problem with Georgia's decision to kill Mr Davis is not that it's unpopular; it's that it was wrong.
In the event, neither point carried much weight. The execution time of 7pm came and went. Word spread through the protesters—around 150 on the prison grounds and another 500 or so on the grassy hill across the street—that the US Supreme Court had ordered the execution delayed. They were jubilant. The protests across the street grew stronger and louder. So did the police presence; by 9pm there were around 200 cops—camouflage-clad SWAT, corrections officers in black helmets and riot gear, state troopers in old-school powder blues with old-school wooden nightsticks—lined up in formation in front of the prison, across the street from the protesters. But as the night wore on, the protesters grew quieter. Shouts of "Fuck the police/No justice, no peace!" gave way to candles and silent prayer. I don't know that anybody expected the Supreme Court to grant a stay. They had already denied one on the same evidence in March. Around 10.30 the Court announced it refused to block the execution. There was silence, weeping and prayer. A prison official came out to announce that the sentence was carried out starting at 10.53, and Mr Davis was pronounced dead at 11.08. His body was removed from the prison grounds at around midnight. When it was all over, Raphael Warnock, the pastor of Ebenezer Church, where Martin Luther King preached, said, "This is one of those moments when the nation is called to examine itself and ask, 'Is this who we are?'" It seems that it is, alas.