In September 2011 the execution of Troy Davis for killing police officer Mark McPhail of Savannah created national and international headlines. Those opposing the death penalty claimed there were witnesses who had recanted. There were stories of jurors who had second thoughts. It was widely reported -- incorrectly -- that there was no physical evidence linking Troy Davis to the crime.
In short, a full-fledged media and PR campaign was launched to not only convince the public that an innocent man was going to be put to death at the hands of the state, but as is usual in these high-profile cases, the entire concept of a state imposed death penalty was put on trial.
When fighting against many who chose to defer accurate facts in order to appeal to raw emotion, it was difficult to assert that the family of Mark McPhail and the rights of the victims needed equal time and consideration. The balance of justice through the eyes of those victimized by heinous crimes was one of the central reasons I argued that Troy Davis needed to be put to death.
His case had been thoroughly reviewed by the Georgia and U.S. Supreme Courts many times. He received all due processes available under the law. In the end, the system worked. The McPhail family received what most of us would try to call "closure" -- though that's a concept that any of us who has ever been close to a case such as this would understand never actually exists.
I say that to assert that I remain confident in my opinion that Troy Davis should have been put to death under the laws of Georgia. The facts of the case and integrity of the legal system remained true, and insulated as they are designed to be from the court of public opinion which was actively manipulated to create a different result. And that must be understood so that I can contrast with the bigger issue of today.
Warren Hill is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection next Wednesday, February 19. He is scheduled to die for murdering fellow inmate Joseph Handspike when he was already in jail for another murder. Complicating the issue is his IQ, which in the low 70s is just high enough by Georgia standards to not be considered mentally impaired, but also low enough that most states would not make him eligible for the death penalty. Again, Georgia and its death penalty will be on trial in the court of public opinion, providing further fodder to chip away at an already difficult to impose law.
But beneath the headlines that we are sure to hear (and that frankly are more valid than the specious claims raised in the McPhail case), there is another matter that makes this execution problematic. The relatives of the victim do not want this execution to proceed.
This is not a late recantation as was alleged the case in the McPhail case. Rather, the family of Mr. Handspike says they were not even given notice of the trial -- much less allowed to testify in the sentencing phase.
It is commonplace for the family of victims to give impact statements during sentencing. Much of this time the testimony is given to ensure that a harsh punishment is handed down, though occasionally there is a request for leniency. The family Joseph Handspike wasn't given the courtesy of attending, much less to have their wishes considered.
The victim nor the murderer in this case are sympathetic characters. But if our justice system is to remain blind, we must consider the basic rights that we would afford to the least among us. With both killer and victim already in jail for murder it's easy to look the other way while thinking that Georgia taxpayers are better off because the expense of housing two men for the rest of their lives has been spared.
A system of justice requires us to protect those who are less than sympathetic. Warren Hill is a two-time murderer and will frankly never be a producing member of society, as any alternative to his death at this point would be life behind bars. Still, he has rights under the law that are afforded to the rest of us when facing judgment. The selective omission of a victims' statement likely made a difference in his case.
It appears Georgia got this one wrong. The headlines will tell us that again next week. This time, however, they will likely be right.
Charlie Harper, author and editor of the Peach Pundit blog, writes on Georgia politics and government; www.peachpundit.com.