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Death penalty case stirs emotions

As the hours became minutes and continued to tick down to the 7 o’clock hour Wednesday night, it became more apparent that Troy Davis would be put to death by the state of Georgia for the murder of Mark MacPhail, an off-duty Savannah police officer, in 1989.

The death penalty is always something that should be considered soberly and administered sparingly. There is no more severe penalty available to the justice system than to deprive a convicted individual of his or her very life, regardless of what your thoughts on an afterlife might be.

That said, the case of Davis is troubling, and not because of the worldwide attention it has gathered and its focal point for many as an argument on whether the death penalty should or should not be abolished.

The argument that capital punishment is needed as a deterrent of murders and other serious crimes is a specious one. What effect knowing that this ultimate penalty is “out there” is not a reason for capital punishment. And the death penalty should not be a means for exacting revenge for the death of a loved one.

Equally invalid, however, is the argument that no matter what an individual has done, a government has no right to impose a death penalty.

There are some among us whose actions are so heinous and whose contempt for others is so great that — because of their own actions — they forfeit the right to live.

The case has become a cause celebre across the United States and as far away as Europe. Petitions, which have no weight in evidence, were drawn up urging that the death sentence be commuted. High-profile individuals, including the pope, former President Jimmy Carter and former prosecutor Bob Barr, said that Davis’ life should be spared. And Barr certainly isn’t someone who can be labeled as soft on crime.

When you take away the circus that has pitched its tent around this case, the question boils down to this: Did Troy Davis gun down Mark MacPhail?

Nine witnesses testified that he did in 1989. A trial jury found him guilty, and he was sentenced to die.

Nearly 20 years later, seven of those nine witnesses recanted their testimony in whole or in part. Davis’s attorneys — rightly so — seized upon that development to argue that there was doubt that Davis committed the murder, though the court system doesn’t place a lot of stock in reversal of testimony, an indication that the witness has lied either initially or subsequently.

Three times since 2007, his execution was delayed while lawyers made arguments on his behalf. The U.S. Supreme Court even took the unusual step of directing a U.S. District Court judge to hear the testimony developments and determine whether Davis was innocent of the charge.

That is a nearly impossibly high standard to reach in any court, even higher than the beyond-reasonable-doubt standard used to determine guilt. In the end, the judge said he could not declare that Davis did not commit the murder.

Since that time, Davis’s avenue of appeals, including one filed with the U.S. Supreme Court less than an hour before his scheduled execution, has run out.

At nearly 10:30 p.m. Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Davis’ appeal.

If an individual deliberately kills another person, particularly one like MacPhail who was trying to help a homeless man who was being victimized, then the death penalty is an appropriate sentence. Davis had numerous appeals, numerous reviews and one exceptional review. The court system has reviewed the evidence and listened to the arguments multiple times, and determined that he committed the crime.

From the outside, it is easy to have doubts. We can only hope the system worked and they got it right.