On Tuesday night, the Swarthmore African-American Students Society (SASS) hosted an open meeting to discuss the controversial execution of death row inmate Troy Davis. SASS’s meeting provided a forum for students to discuss their reactions to Davis’s execution, and how Davis’s race may have affected the decision to proceed with the execution.
Davis was convicted of murdering a police officer during a 1989 brawl outside a Burger King in Savannah, Georgia. Even after many witnesses pivotal to the case recanted their testimony, Davis’s conviction and death sentence held. The Troy Davis case resonated for Americans nationwide as an example of the arbitrariness of the death penalty.
“Life is precious,” stated SASS President Paul Cato ’14. “Unless we can ensure that subjectivity plays no role in deciding whether or not [life] should be taken, then I think the death penalty has no place in American society.” Although attendees to the meeting disagreed about whether criminals should ever be executed, there was strong agreement that the justice system is too prone to error to be in the habit of executing criminals.
Organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are traditional advocates for defendants in cases like Davis’s. However, Cato mentioned that the NAACP, which had taken a strong interest in this case, had come under criticism for supposedly using it as a means to talk about race.
SASS was not bothered by this sort of criticism. The room agreed that Troy Davis’s execution was, by its very nature, of concern to the African-American community. Similar to the fights to improve access to education, to combat drug abuse, and to reduce crime, the fight for a fair trial for all was of great concern to the group assembled on Tuesday night.
Discussion became animated as the dozen-or-so participants began to consider alternatives to the death penalty. The question, “What good does the death penalty accomplish?” was repeated several times and served not only as a rhetorical attack on the death penalty but also as a gateway into a serious utilitarian discussion. Students familiar with inmate rehabilitation programs offered observations from the experience. One student pointed out that a life sentence is often cheaper than a death sentence when the costs of appeals are considered.
Quitterie Gounot ’13 was frustrated that the execution was not of greater concern to the whole Swarthmore community. Dismissing “bandwagon activism,” Gounot wondered why more students didn’t express moral indignation at instances of capital punishment abuse. As a two-time intern at the Georgia Innocence Project, which seeks to help exonerate innocent death row inmates, she insisted that effort on this issue produces results. “Law is much more than an intellectual game,” she said.