At first the sound seemed like screams of horror. Turn up the volume, furrow my brow, and it rang more clearly as shouts of joy. Then the tone rippled, and twisted, and shook out cries of confusion.

Was Troy Davis alive? Was he dead? Was there a stay? Just a delay? Was he, as Mia Farrow said, really lying on the gurney with the IV in his arm when the United States Supreme Court issued the words that spun out his life just a little bit longer?

The rumours spread and I, swayed by the cries of “stay” and the jubilant exclamations of NAACP leaders on Democracy Now’s live feed, played my small part in spinning one of them. Mea culpa, indeed. Melissa, learn thee when to step away from the Twitter feed.

But this is why I rarely watch live news video outside executions.

For me, when I’m watching a safe distance from the death chamber, the emotions — the nail-biting tension, the elation, the heartbreak and, yes, the horror — play out too similar to watching a movie. The hero is doomed, and saved, and maybe doomed again. Pentobarbital. Vercuronium bromide. Potassium chloride. End scene.

But then the credits don’t roll and the dream doesn’t end. This is a real man’s life, and it could really be ended in six minutes and twenty-two seconds. Usually, the dispassionate nature of legal proceedings is one of the strengths of our justice system; but when it comes to printing out the paperwork and counting down the minutes to a killing, those cold procedural nuances become monstrous.

This time, I watched. Not for my personal conviction of innocence, or guilt; in a way, though the spectre of the innocent dead is the most difficult weight to shoulder, there are even bigger burdens the death penalty confers on its bearers. None of us can ever know the absolute truth. But tonight, we can all be witness to something that now has been done, and can never be undone.

Isn’t that why we seek justice in the first place?

To quote Amaeryllis on Twitter: “Justice is served at conviction; beyond that is just a test of our humanity.”

One day, one day we will pass that test. I believe this to be true. It’s just a long, hard road to get there.

Recommended reading:

+ The Innocence Project: Has exonerated 17 death row inmates based on DNA evidence. Begs the question of what truths exist amongst the thousands of death row inmates in the U.S. for whom no DNA evidence ever existed, or for whom DNA evidence was lost.

+ Trial By Fire: The New Yorker’s award-winning investigation into case of a Texas man executed for the deaths of his children, which explores some deep problems with the reliability of evidence in arson cases.


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