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updated 9/22/2011 5:08:10 PM ET 2011-09-22T21:08:10

After decades of litigation, the final legal ruling allowing the execution of Troy Davis was a one-sentence order from the United States Supreme Court so terse that it could have fit neatly into a Twitter message with room to spare.

But it is hardly the last word on the case, or in the national debate over the death penalty.

The finality of Mr. Davis’s sentence, and the outpouring of protest worldwide, leaves in its wake more than its share of questions — some that go beyond the facts of the case to encompass fundamental issues relating to capital punishment itself. Because the Savannah police officer he was convicted of killing in 1989, Mark MacPhail, was white and Mr. Davis was black, the progress of Mr. Davis’s case over two decades widened fault lines on the death penalty and, in particular, over the question of whether a black person in the South could be guaranteed the same justice as a white one.

The nature of those doubts and the arguments for Mr. Davis’s innocence — which one judge dismissed as “smoke and mirrors” — could be, and will be, debated endlessly. And while no judge who reviewed the minimal physical evidence and the testimony and witness recantations in the case ever ruled to overturn Mr. Davis’s conviction, the activist community portrayed him as a symbol of the fallibility of eyewitness identification, of the intransigence of the justice system and its unwillingness to correct errors — and even as a failure of the nation itself.

Story: Georgia executes Troy Davis after his last pleas fail

“The execution of an innocent man crystallizes in the most sickening way the vast systemic injustices that plague our death penalty system,” Denny LeBoeuf, director of the Capital Punishment Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement. “No innocent person should ever be put to death, and it is unconscionable and unconstitutional to carry out an execution where, as in the case of Troy Davis, significant doubts exist.”

Amnesty International, which mobilized much of the opposition to the Davis execution, pledged to redouble its efforts against the death penalty in the United States, and the executive committee of the N.A.A.C.P. voted this week to raise the death penalty to the forefront of its list of priorities in future advocacy.

But can the debate over the death penalty even be called a national conversation, or is it simply two factions shouting past each other? Does it change hearts and minds, or harden advocates in their positions? Brawls, after all, do not persuade, and those favoring the execution sounded every bit as certain of Mr. Davis’s guilt as were his supporters of his innocence.

His execution underscores the uncomfortable relationship Americans have with the death penalty. A Gallup poll last October showed that 64 percent of those surveyed supported it for those convicted of murder, a level that had been relatively consistent for the previous seven years. Support had been higher — 80 percent in 1994 — but it has slipped, in part because of the drumbeat of hundreds of convictions overturned because of DNA evidence.

Death penalty politics
Gallup has asked whether people favor life imprisonment without parole as an alternative to the death penalty, and those surveyed are almost evenly split on that issue, with 49 percent supporting the death penalty and 46 percent preferring life imprisonment.

Before 2000, the answer was more lopsided in favor of the death penalty, with 61 percent preferring the death penalty in 1997, for example.

Jurors have shown a growing reluctance to impose the death penalty; in 1994, 314 people were placed on death row; that number has dropped by roughly two-thirds since, according to figures compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit group that opposes the death penalty.

Video: Davis execution doesn’t end debate (on this page)

Even among the more casual observers, death penalty politics have become more prominent in light of the questions in the Davis case. Big Boi, a rapper from Savannah, Ga., who showed up here on Wednesday to oppose the death penalty, said the issue was one he and his friends were concerned about.

“People are starting to think about this,” he said. “ ‘Though shalt not kill’ should apply to governments and people.”

For religious communities, the death penalty is an increasingly important rallying point.

The campaign to win clemency for Mr. Davis enlisted more support from religious leaders than any other death penalty case in recent memory, said Stephen Dear, executive director of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, an interfaith advocacy group based in Carrboro, N.C.

More than 3,500 religious leaders and lay people signed a letter from Mr. Dear’s organization to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles pleading with the board to re-examine Mr. Davis’s case. That was far more religious leaders than had ever signed a letter in support of a death row inmate, Mr. Dear said.

Some of the leaders are from denominations that oppose the death penalty, like the Southern Baptist Convention. Mr. Dear said his group planned to use the momentum generated among religious leaders who opposed the Davis execution to galvanize broader opposition to the death penalty. “This has been a teachable moment for America’s religious leadership — that the death penalty is so awash with bias and errors that there’s no morally acceptable alternative but repealing it,” he said.

Mr. Davis’s execution and the crusade it ignited ultimately brings to bear larger questions of a longing for finality in what many argue is a flawed legal system.

'Risk of executing an innocent person'
William Otis, a former federal prosecutor and special White House counsel under President George W. Bush, said “there has to be finality for any system that’s going to work,” but added: “To say that there has to be finality is not to say that things should be rushed. The primary duty of courts is to get it right.”

A problem for Mr. Davis’s defenders, he said, is that judges tend to look at recantations, especially from witnesses who are in prison, “with a flinty eye,” since “telling the truth is not really a big value among the prison population.”

“The question is not whether you can avoid errors. The only realistic question in an adult mind is which set of errors you’re going to accept,” he said. “You have to be mature and honest about it, and understand there is the risk of executing an innocent person.”

Douglas A. Berman, who teaches sentencing law at Ohio State University, said that Mr. Davis was the 1,269th person to be executed since the Supreme Court lifted its ban on the practice in 1976. (The 1,268th prisoner also met his death in Texas; Lawrence Russell Brewer was executed Wednesday for the dragging death of James Byrd Jr., a black man, in 1998.) “I’m not sure we’re going to have a healthy national dialogue” on the death penalty because of the Davis case, Mr. Berman said.

“Some people are eager to put considerable faith in the fact that a jury considered the case and came up with the answer. Many of the people asserting confidence in his guilt are much more expressing confidence in our legal system and our jury system. That’s why the shouting gets so loud — because what is nominally a factual issue of his guilt is really a dispute over how that issue gets resolved,” and by whom, he said.

To Eric M. Freedman, a professor at Hofstra Law School and an expert on the death penalty, the desire for finality is “understandable in some respects,” but the process of reversing convictions places a high bar in front of defendants. At trial, he said, the state had the burden of proving them guilty, and if “one reasonable juror would have had a reasonable doubt, that would have gotten you acquittal.”

“After conviction,” Professor Freedman said, “the burden shifts to them.”

Thus, he said, the process “allows error to justify error” through its efforts to respect the decisions of juries.

“The system does bury its mistakes.” he said.

Laurie Goodstein and Kim Severson contributed reporting.

This article, “ In Debate, Davis Execution Offers Little Closure,” first appeared in The New York Times.

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times

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