After Troy Davis... and Lawrence Brewer

September 22, 2011

“To take a life when a life has been lost is revenge, not justice." -- Desmond Tutu

It’s over now. Dawn broke and most of us went about our business. School, work, breakfast for the kids. A quick glance at the calendar perhaps to see what’s next.

In Georgia and Texas, the machinery of death cleaned up its mess: The bodies of Troy Davis and Lawrence Brewer were gathered from their gurneys, faces covered, and put through the ordinary process of disposal. The death chambers were swept, tissues and other detritus removed.

In Georgia, the victim’s family expressed relief, promised they were free now to move on. In Texas, the victim’s family -- which had asked that Brewer be spared -- said it had come to peace a long time ago.

Both murders were brutal and ugly. We know the details: The off-duty cop shot dead in Georgia; the black man tied behind the truck who remained aware as he was dragged mile after mile over Texas backwoods, surrendering to death only when his body hit a culvert and sent his arm and head flying in different directions.

It’s a gory, bloody image. It got a sensational amount of attention back in 1998, when Brewer and his white supremacists buddies killed James Byrd, Jr.

But it was nearly forgotten in recent days as attention focused on Davis and the questions about his innocence brought the death penalty back into the spotlight.

Davis’ is the kind of case that will do that. It asks us if we -- because all of us who live in the U.S., who identify as Americans, are implicated in these deaths -- may have killed an innocent man. Ultimately, the Davis case asks us to consider the death penalty not on its own terms, but because of a possibility of misapplication.

The Brewer case is more ruthless in its challenge. Because Brewer was a monster who reveled in his monstrosity. “As far as any regrets, no, I have no regrets. No, I’d do it all over again, to tell you the truth,” he told a local news station on the eve of his execution.

To be against the death penalty -- not because the convicted might be innocent but because killing another human being to exact justice is wrong -- means sparing that monster too.

Yes, the death penalty is wrong because it may have brought an innocent man to his death in Georgia. But it is also wrong because, by killing the monster in Texas and letting us feel assuaged, it makes us just a little bit monstrous too.