There has been lots of outrage over the execution of Troy Davis in Butts County Georgia. The outrage is justifiable.
There is outrage on multiple levels. There is first of all the issue of establishing Davis' guilt in the murder of Mark MacPhail. To quote from a New York Times editorial, "The…refusal to grant him clemency is appalling in light of developments after his conviction: reports about police misconduct, the recantation of testimony by a string of eyewitnesses and reports from other witnesses that another person had confessed to the crime." As the editorial elaborates, the problem of wrongful conviction is by no means restricted to Troy Davis: "Studies of the hundreds of felony cases overturned because of DNA evidence have found that misidentifications accounted for between 75 percent and 85 percent of the wrongful convictions. The Davis case offers egregious examples of this kind of error."
Then there is the issue of judicial process. The New York Times quotes Eric Freedman, "a professor at Hofstra Law School and an expert on the death penalty" as saying that the appeal process for death penalties places too high a bar on defendants. While the state has the burden of proof at trial time, after conviction, the burden shifts to the defense.
The larger issue in the background is the issue of death penalty itself. That is also an issue that gives rise to legitimate outrage. Death penalty is a barbaric practice. To quote Amnesty International that is leading voice in the campaign against the death penalty, "Governments cannot be trusted with the awful power over life and death." After all, the death penalty is abolished in most industrialized countries. For example, with the passage of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, the death penalty was abolished across the European Union.
However, there is one point that is not being said as much and bears saying. A lot of the discussion around the stand of the United States on the death penalty is built on the claim that the United States emphasizes personal responsibility. To quote Ross Douthat from the New York Times: "The case for executing murderers is a case for proportionality in punishment: for sentences that fit the crime, and penalties that close the circle."
Indeed, we do hear a lot of emphasis on "personal responsibility" and not just on the issue of crime. However, there is an important qualification to be added. The operative principle is "personal responsibility for thee but not for me."
A couple of examples serve to illustrate. One is the prosecution of George W. Bush for authorizing torture. The case is serious enough that Bush avoids traveling in Europe for fear of arrest. Yet, I don't recall any calls for "personal responsibility" from the right or the liberals for that matter, much less "proportionality in punishment" and "penalties that close the circle". Remember liberal favorite Jon Stewart and his million moderation march last year? Stewart's motivation was to "restore sanity" after a minority engaged in "extreme rhetoric". He tarred not only the right for criticizing Obama but the left for arguing that Bush is a war criminal.
The second is even more closely related to the death penalty. We all know that the law grants several rights of persons to corporations such as free speech rights under the First Amendment, property rights under the Fifth Amendment and equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. For example, the Citizens United verdict that removes restrictions on corporate funding of campaigns is based on the First Amendment.
Well, ok if corporations are persons, then shouldn't the death penalty be applied to them also? When you "execute" a corporation, all that happens is that the corporation is dissolved and its assets are seized by the public once its creditors are paid off. Given the limited liability laws implied by corporate structures, share holders would only lose their share, not their personal property. In other words, no person of flesh and blood is killed; so none of the associated ethical dilemmas is present – people that support non-violence should have no issue with corporate execution. Corporate crime after all can kill thousands of people. Note that I'm only counting deaths that can be attributed to corporate manslaughter legally. If we cast the net wider and consider deaths where corporate agency is involved, then corporations are among the biggest killers in society.
So then where are the calls for personal responsibility and penalties that close the circle? Why doesn't the state of Texas that is notorious for its aggressive usage of the death penalty for people use the penalty for corporations?