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It’s that time of the semester when blog posting gets to be challenging, but I will do my best.

On Wednesday, September 21, 2011, two men were executed.

Troy Davis, convicted of the 1989 shooting of an off-duty police officer, was the subject of massive news coverage, an appeal to the Supreme Court, and support, Wikipedia lists, from Amnesty International, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, former President Jimmy Carter, Rev. Al Sharpton, Pope Benedict XVI, Nobel Peace Prize recipient Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and former FBI Director and judge William S. Sessions.

Lawrence Brewer, convicted of the 1998 dragging death of James Byrd, on the other hand, was executed almost unnoticed.

There were, of course, a lot of other differences between the two.

Davis maintained his innocence to the end; his last words were “I’d like to address the MacPhail family. Let you know, despite the situation you are in, I’m not the one who personally killed your son, your father, your brother. I am innocent.”

Brewer also claimed innocence, according to KHOU in Houston: “the man who’s facing execution for the crime still says he didn’t commit murder, and that he was just going along with friends for a ride.”

Brewer did, however, say that “as far as any regrets, no, I have no regrets [ . . . ].No, I’d do it all over again, to tell you the truth,”and this contention that even if he didn’t participate in the murder he wouldn’t have stopped it makes his a less compelling declaration of innocence.(This has been reported as him saying he would kill Byrd again, but in the original context that seems not to be the case.)

The MacPhails were very invested in Troy Davis dying for the death of their family member. When he was pronounced dead, MacPhail’s son and brother smiled.

Byrd’s son, on the other hand, said “You can’t fight murder with murder. Life in prison would have been fine. I know he can’t hurt my daddy anymore. I wish the state would take in mind that this isn’t what we want.”

With Davis, Wikipdia notes, “Following the original trial, seven witnesses changed or recanted all or part of their testimony.” Indeed, one of the rallying cries for the Davis case was “too much doubt.”

On the other hand, according the New York Times in 1999, ” In letters introduced into evidence, Mr. Brewer referred to the killing and boasted about ‘rolling a tire,’ which prosecutors said was a derogatory term for assaulting a black person. ‘Well, I did it,’ Mr. Brewer wrote. ‘And no longer am I a virgin. It was a rush, and I’m still licking my lips for more.'” That is, it seems relatively clear that Brewer did it, despite his protestation of innocence.

As a police officer, MacPhail was in a category with a lot of baggage. Some people, including the most vocal proponents of executing Troy Davis, would contend that killing a police officer, as a representative of the law (even if, as MacPhail was, the officer is off duty at the time), is worse than any old fatal shooting. Others would point to histories of police abuse and suggest that it made him a less compelling victim.

Byrd was described, in an article I can’t find now, as an especially sympathetic victim. He was a good guy whom everyone liked and even sort of downtrodden in that he didn’t have a car and walked everywhere he went, which was how he came into the path of the people who killed him in the first place. Killing Byrd, this argument goes, is worse than killing just anybody.

According to Wikipedia, “MacPhail was shot twice: once through the heart and once in the face.” He probably died pretty quickly.

When James Byrd Jr. died, on the other hand, his killers “beat him severely, urinated on him and chained him by his ankles to their pickup truck before dragging him for three miles. [ . . . ] [F]orensic evidence suggests that Byrd had been attempting to keep his head up while being dragged, and an autopsy suggested that Byrd was alive during much of the dragging. Byrd died after his right arm and head were severed after his body hit a culvert.”It was brutal. He suffered.

But I hope that at this point you’re resisting this narrative, Dear Reader.

How can I say that one murder is worse than another? How can there be an assessment that one victim is less tragic than another? I can’t, and I know it. These things can’t be quantified.

The reason I made the argument is to point out is that it’s equally illogical to say that having celebrity supporters vs. being entirely unsympathetic makes one deserve to die more or less. It doesn’t. Neither does proclaiming one’s own innocence or not, there being a family desire for vengeance or not, or killing a member of a more or less privileged category.

That’s because no matter how heinous someone’s crime is, or how sure you are that they committed it, they don’t deserve to die.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that “Spencer Lawton, the Savannah prosecutor who helped convict Davis, said the case shouldn’t morph into a broader debate about capital punishment,” but it has, and it should.

There’s something a little absurd about, as the quip goes, killing people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong.

There’s also something not very encouraging about the U.S. being in a club of capital punishers that included, in 2010,

The Capital Punishment World Mapcountries most Americans consider themselves to be freer than (China) or otherwise superior to, including George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” members Iran and North Korea, John Bolton’s “Beyond the Axis of Evil” members Cuba, Libya and Syria, and Condolezza Rice’s “Outpost of Tyranny” Belarus. (On the Axis of Evil and its later elaborations, see Nice company we’re keeping there.

The U.S. likes to think of itself (along with, usually, Europe) as a shining example of civilization, but it’s not joined by any country in Europe in continuing to use the death penalty.

In fact, it has been beat to the punch on abolishing it by 71% of the world: 49% of world nations have abolished it entirely; 5% keep it only “for crimes committed in exceptional circumstances (such as in time of war)”; 17% technically have it on the books, “but have not used it for at least 10 years and are believed to have a policy or established practice of not carrying out executions, or it is under a moratorium.” Only 29% of countries—just 58 of them in the world—actually use the thing regularly.

And, even if most of humanity moving away from using this form of punishment doesn’t move anyone to reassess whether the death penalty is really something we want to have, the damn thing is expensive. Counterintuitive though it may be, it costs more to kill someone than to imprison them for life.

Some crimes are horrible. Hell, some people are horrible. Some people do things that are so horrible that it’s reasonable not to expose the rest of humanity to the danger that they’ll do it again. Sometimes there’s not a single redeeming quality about such a person. We might be tempted to not call them human, even.

But that’s the one step we can’t take.

It’s an inability to see another as human that allows someone to do something horrible in the first place. So why would we replicate it in our response?

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