Friday, September 23, 2011
Strange Fruit: On the Execution of Troy Anthony Davis
I have been an opponent of the death penalty for as long as I can remember. In 1995, while I was in seminary, I preached a sermon at Judson Memorial Church based on Jesus’ words in Matthew 7 “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.” The sermon was titled "Strange Fruit" from the song about lynching that Billie Holliday made famous. In that sermon, I made the point that resonates even more powerfully for me today: our system of capital punishment is a bad tree and no good fruit can come of it.
Patricia J. Williams made the point poignantly in a review essay called "The Executioner's Automat" published on 10 July 2005 in The Nation magazine: "But it is democracy that dies when we become a nation of heartbroken vengeance-seekers. The seduction of the “string ’emup” mentality is not that it’s “frontier” Justice in some cruel, cartoon-ish way. Its appeal is precisely that it is a response of insatiable sorrow, immediate payback; it is heroically grief-stricken rather than reasoned. Moreover, the rage for retribution risks obscuring the possibility of innocence, the need for due process, the presence of mitigating circumstances and the dubiety of crooked informants. And in its most extreme forms, the bloodlust risks being used to justify thestate practice of sadism upon all those guilty bodies so needing to be beaten, so asking to be broken. We despise murderers, we hate. But there is some point at which the despising takes on a life of its own; when the death-dealing actually becomes satisfying and eventually pleasurable. "
The execution of Troy Davis involved all of the dangers that Williams suggested, from the real possibility of innocence to the lack of due process to the dubiety of informants. The state's act was bad fruit from a bad tree. All state-sponsored murder is bad fruit. Racially biased sentencing is bad fruit. A vengeful public, evinced in the gleeful cheering of Governor Rick Perry’s woeful record of death in Texas by the audience at the Republican debates, is bad fruit. A disinterested public, demonstrated in the lack of attention to two other executions this week, is bad fruit. No ultimate public good can come from such a bad tree. It is making something of us and our democracy that is grotesque and evil. The only solution for us as a nation is to cut down and uproot the tree of capital punishment.