This week, Georgia inmate Troy Davis went to his death proclaiming his innocence in the 1989 murder of off-duty police officer Marc MacPhail. Quite a few people believed Davis, and many were appalled that Georgia executed a potentially innocent man. For about a decade, support for the death penalty has held steady at around 64 percent — down from 80 percent in the early 1990s. But given the considerable attention and high-profile endorsements of doubt about Davis' guilt, says Steve Kornacki at Salon, it's tempting to wonder: Might his death "serve as a public opinion tipping point"?
Davis' death changes nothing: Despite liberal caterwauling, there's "no solid evidence that an innocent man has been executed in this country in the last 50 years," says John Hawkins at The Huffington Post. That includes Davis. But "even if an innocent man were executed, it wouldn't change anything." If the choices are to never execute criminals because people make mistakes, or to trust a criminal justice system already too skewed toward killers — see O.J., Casey Anthony — the public will stick to its guns.
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But the doubts are getting to people: When it comes to capital punishment, "the desire for certainty is finally beginning to carry as much weight as the need for finality," says Dahlia Lithwick at Slate. And certainty is ever-harder to come by, particularly given the never-ending tales of prosecutorial error and misconduct. That's why the huge interest in the Davis execution could signal that "the death penalty in America is finally dying." People look at Davis and wonder: "Could someone I care about have been sentenced to death based on a bunch of eyewitnesses who later recanted?"
America still isn't ready to ditch the death penalty: "The possibility of innocence is sort-of a reason to get rid of the death penalty," says R. Eric VanNewkirk at Standing on the Shoulders of Giant Midgets. But it's ultimately a dead-end rationale. Under our flawed legal system — which, while rife with racism and witness bullying, is still better than "trial by combat or ordeal" — Davis was undoubtedly guilty. Set aside the many problems with his trial — they aren't even particularly unusual in America's justice system. So until you can convince Americans that "the reason it wasn't right to kill Troy Davis was because he was a human being and we can do better than barbarism," death penalty opponents are just treading water.
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