When An Innocent Man Is Sentenced To Die

This week’s Time Magazine has a brief story about a Georgia man sentenced to death in 1991 for killing an off-duty police officer. The Supreme Court, for the first time in a half-century, has agreed to hear new evidence and the retracted testimonies of seven of nine witnesses against the man — witnesses who now say they were wrong in their testimony, testimony that ultimately brought about his conviction.

You would think that this would be hailed as good news — not just for the man, who has proclaimed his innocence from the start, but also for those who strive to proclaim and protect righteousness in our judicial system. But the most prominent member of the court, the uber-Catholic Antonin Scalia, has this to say about the State killing of people wrongly convicted of murder:

(From Time Magazine, August 31, 2009): “This Court has NEVER held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is ‘actually’ innocent.” Justice Antonin Scalia, re: The State of Georgia vs. Troy Davis

Well, the Constitution may not forbid it — a pretty dubious point in itself — but the Word of God does. Hundreds of innocent men have been executed in this and the last century, usually because of sloppy or incompetent work on the part of their public defenders. The rich have access to top-notch legal advocacy; the poor have to rely on overworked and underpaid public defenders unable to stanch the tide of bigotry, poverty, and systemic racism that permeates society and the legal system. All murder is equally wrong, but all justice isn’t equally just. Let us pray that Troy Davis’ day in court results in true justice, Scalia’s chilling nonchalance notwithstanding.

And I write this on the week that my childhood friend is to be released from prison after serving 15 years for a murder he did commit. That’s why Davis’ case really got to me — because if my friend (and now my brother in Christ) WERE innocent, he might well have been convicted anyway. That’s an injustice that hits close to home, and one that ought to cause outrage from Christians. Scalia’s words are appalling, but, sadly, they’ll never get the play that Sonia Sotomayor’s out-of-context “wise Latina” statements did.

Unequal justice, unequal outrage toward the Justices. May God have mercy on this court, a court publicly represented by a devout Catholic who nonetheless thinks that putting an innocent man to death is, according to the Constitution, not such a big deal.

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