There were no Parisian candlelight vigils for Lawrence Russell Brewer, no pleas for a stay of execution, no expressions of anger and frustration at the carrying out of his death sentence. No one would consider his execution a miscarriage of justice, and no protestor will hold up his photograph as evidence of the cruelty of state-sponsored murder. After all, if anyone deserved such a fate, it was he, right? Although Brewer’s case was radically different from Troy Davis’ (polar opposites, in fact), coincidentally, both Brewer and Davis were put to death by the same method-lethal injection Wednesday night by their respective states, Texas and Georgia.
And perhaps we ignore Brewer’s execution too hastily. While we should always, always continue to demand justice for the wrongly-and prejudicially convicted, we must also demonstrate our opposition to the death penalty in even the most indefensible instances. Brewer’s case was nothing if not just that: indefensible. Certainly, we cannot utilize his example in the way that we could with Troy Davis, a man convicted under questionable circumstances, who maintained his innocence until his dying breath. Similarly, we cannot ignore the emotional aspect of Davis’ case, either; to do so would be to relinquish one of our most powerful arguments to the cold realities of logic. But to personalize Brewer’s case, and those like it, would be tantamount to political and public-relations suicide. Instead, we should remember that every execution perpetrated against a human being is still an execution, no matter how heinous the person’s crimes. In Brewer’s case, we should mourn the method of his demise, even if we would never mourn Brewer’s death itself.
Indeed, it is extremely difficult to defend Brewer’s right to live, given the facts of his crimes, as well as his personal history. In 1998, he and two friends, members of a Ku Klux Klan offshoot group, ganged up on a disabled African-American man named James Byrd, Jr., bound him with chains to the back of a pickup truck, and dragged him down a remote East Texas road to his gruesome, horrifying death. Brewer and his confederates were arrested the next day, still covered in Byrd’s blood.
Unlike Davis’ conviction, there was no doubt as to Brewer’s guilt. Whereas Davis was convicted on the supposed strength of individual testimonies, with little to no physical evidence, Brewer’s conviction came as a result of copious physical evidence. Byrd’s blood was found on the chains, the pickup truck, Brewer’s clothes (as well as the clothes of the co-conspirators), and even on Brewer’s person. Additionally, Brewer’s history as a white supremacist ensured that his case would be tried under hate-crime legislation. Given the racial component, as well as the brutal circumstances of Byrd’s death, who could be more deserving of a death sentence than Brewer?
But those of us opposed to the death penalty cannot pick and choose our stance based upon the character of the condemned. Our opposition isn’t to the execution of a particular person; it is to the practice of execution itself. Our opposition covers a broad range of philosophies: politically, some believe that a government shouldn’t have the authority to end a person’s life; legally, some believe that the nature of execution is prohibitively final (and thus unfair from a judicial perspective which emphasizes the requirement that no punishment be irreversible); ethically, many believe the practice is cruel and unusual, and thus prohibited by the Eighth Amendment; theologically, many religions believe that forgiveness and atonement are virtues, while vengeance and retribution are sins. And with each of these philosophical stances, we should apply these beliefs in all cases, not on an individual basis.
And so, as two men died when their respective states filled their veins with toxins, a vengeful punishment was finally visited upon them. In Davis’ case, it was a questionable justice at best; in Brewer’s case, it was as certain a conviction as possible in the American justice system. Both men were condemned to die as retribution for the crimes for which they were convicted. Even after Davis’ death, doubts continue to linger; no one has expressed even a hint of skepticism about Brewer’s guilt. And that is where the factual similarities between the two cases end. It’s easy to utilize the circumstances of Davis’ death as a benchmark for the need to end the practice of state-sponsored execution, and as near to impossible as exists to do the same for Brewer’s death. But it is imperative that we do so; simply put, we must demonstrate against the practice itself, in all instances, reminding others about the inherent fallacies in utilizing the death penalty as a means of seeking resolution. Troy Davis’ case must serve as our emotional outcry; Brewer’s, our emphasis on the practice in its entirety.
Most importantly, we must demonstrate that, in the philosophical perspectives of Davis’ and Brewer’s circumstances, neither man was executed in order to serve a greater purpose. No crimes will be prevented by their deaths, no comfort will come to the families or communities of the victims, no great shift in judicial practice will occur. Two men who woke up Wednesday morning were dead that evening. That is all that has been accomplished by their executions, that is all that will be accomplished by their executions. Their deaths are nothing more than the manifestation of a state’s rage-fueled desire for vengeance. And that vengeance, in its uneven, emotional application, is the worst reason possible to end a human being’s life.