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Saturday, July 21, 2007

Imagine You're On Death Row...

By Leonard Pitts, Jr.
The Detroit Free Press
Saturday, July 21, 2007

You don't know what it's like and neither do I. But we can imagine.

I've always thought it must feel like being buried alive. Lungs starving, lying in blackness, pounding on the coffin lid with dirt showering down, no one hearing your cries.

Or maybe it's like locked-in syndrome, a condition where you lose muscle control — can't move a finger, turn your head, speak. Your body entombs you. You scream within, but no one hears.

Something like that, I think. Something where you're trapped, claustrophobic, unable to believe what is happening, unable to make anyone hear you. That's how it must feel to be an innocent person on death row as execution day draws close.

Tuesday was Troy Anthony Davis' scheduled execution day, though I have no idea if he is an innocent person. I do know that he was convicted of the 1989 killing of a police officer, Mark Allen MacPhail, in Savannah, Ga. And I know that he was on the scene, a Burger King parking lot, that fateful night.

But I also know that Davis has always maintained his innocence. And that no physical evidence — no gun, no fingerprint, no DNA — ever tied him to the crime. And that he was convicted on the testimony of nine key witnesses. And that seven of them have now recanted.

They lied, they say. They were scared, they were bullied and threatened, and they said what the cops wanted to hear. Of the two witnesses who have not recanted, one is a fellow named Sylvester (Red) Coles; some Witnesses claim he's the one who actually shot MacPhail when the officer tried to break up a parking lot altercation.

Monday, one day before Davis was scheduled to die, the state parole board issued a 90-day stay of execution.

You and I have no idea how that must feel, either, but we can imagine. The buried man gets a sip of air. The paralyzed man moves his toe.

And then back down into the coffin, back down into the tomb of your own skin, back in line to die.

Surely Davis' lawyers have explained to him the 1996 federal law, signed by President Bill Clinton, that is throwing roadblocks in his way. Designed to streamline capital cases, it restricts the introduction of exculpatory evidence once the state appeals process is done. But just as surely, Davis, if he is innocent, must wonder how he could have presented evidence he didn't yet have. And he must wonder, too, how there can be a time limit on truth — especially when a human life is at stake. How can you execute a man when there remain serious questions about his guilt?

That's barbarism, not justice.

What's fascinating is that, though 67% of those polled by Gallup pollsters approve of capital punishment in murder cases (and 51% say it's not imposed often enough), 64% admit it does not deter murder, and 63% believe an innocent person has probably been executed since 2001.

In other words, the system doesn't work, we "know" it doesn't work, yet we want it to continue — and, indeed, expand. What kind of madness is that? It's an intellectual disconnect, a refusal to follow logic to its logical end.

It is, of course, easier to countenance that madness, ignore that refusal, when the issue is abstract, when death row is distant, theoretical and does not involve you.

But what must it feel like when it is not abstract, when it is "you'' sitting there in the cell watching the calendar move inexorably toward the day the state will kill you for something you absolutely did not do? Is there a suspension of belief? Do you tell yourself that surely people will come to' their senses any minute now? Does the air close on you like a coffin lid? Does darkness sit on your chest like a weight?

You and I can only imagine. Some men have no need to try.

LEONARD PITTS JR. is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Write to him at