Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Why President Obama should have Georgia on his mind...

The day after Amnesty International's Global Day of Action for Troy Davis, the Telegraph out of London runs an opinion piece by Neil Durkin on the possibility of an Obama pardon for Troy.

Durkin points to the centrism that Obama has come to embody in his first days in Office, straddling the line between hardcore death penalty opponents and reformers. Obama could be described as a pragmatist on this issue who can be pro-death penalty for some crimes, while fully acknowledging the flaws in the system that might lead to an innocent man being executed, something that no one should be for. For example, Obama championed important criminal justice reform while he was a state senator in Illinois, while avoiding ambiguity about whether he supported the death penalty.

So, why should this concern a popular president, burrowing through an enormous in-tray 500 miles away in Washington? Well, on the one hand Barack Obama is unambiguously pro-death penalty in what he calls the "most egregious" or especially "heinous" crimes. Last year he disagreed with a Supreme Court ruling that outlawed the execution of child rapists receiving death sentences and he's said he'd want Bin Laden executed. Okay, so far so what? This is no different from most mainstream politicians in pro-death penalty USA.

But, Obama is also heavily associated with Illinois where, as he delicately puts it, they "had some problems ... in the application of the death penalty". In fact, the problems included the then Governor George Ryan being confronted with the fact that during his governorship more death row prisoners had been released from prison on the grounds of innocence than had been put to death. Death row was running at "a loss". As a lawmaker in Illinois Obama helped introduce new measures for videotaping police interviews and he says he's "proud" of his role in "overhauling a death penalty system that was broken".
A presidential pardon or commutation for Troy would draw enormous attention and scrutiny. It would likely draw criticism as well. People are executed in the United States almost every day, though Durkin is right when he says that Troy has a particularly strong claim of innocence, or at least a strong claim of entitlement to a new trial. Troy's case has drawn so much attention – even from across the pond, as we see here – because it is so egregious. We will see if that moves Obama to action, though, for my part, I doubt it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Love the blog. One small thing: Obama can't pardon Davis. Davis was convicted of a state crime. Obama can only pardon individuals for federal crimes.