The Renaissance in Europe was a period of cultural awakening (the word renaissance, after all, means rebirth). Resting on the past, but looking to the future, artists and poets and philosophers opened themselves to what was then modernism. They questioned, challenged, explored. Michaelangelo, Shakespeare, Michel de Montaigne, Petrarch, Dante, so many more.
And then there was Copernicus. He wasn't actually the first to theorize that the Earth was not the center of the universe. He was, however, the one who provided evidence and made it seem possible. (They don't call it The Copernican Revolution for nothing.)
But if the Earth wasn't the center, if it didn't all revolve around an immovable Us, if that was wrong, if it was even subject to question, then where could you turn? Solid ground dissolved.
John Donne, the great English poet (and Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral), grappled with the problem in The First Anniversarie: An Anatomie of the World. How, he asked rhetorically, can the Bible be right when the facts of the universe seem not to fit.
Both beasts and plants, curst in the curse of man.
So did the world from the first houre decay,
That euening was beginning of the day,
And now the Springs and Sommers which we see,
Like sonnes of women after fifty bee.
And new Philosophy cals all in doubt,
The Element of fire is quite put out;
The Sunne is lost, and th'earth, and no mans wit
Can well direct him where to looke for it.
And freely men confesse that this world's spent,
When in the Planets, and the Firmament
They seeke so many new; they see that this
Is crumbled out againe to his Atomis.
'Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone;
All iust supply, and all Relation:
Prince, Subiect, Father, Sonne, are things forgot,
[F]or euery man alone thinkes he hath got
To be a Phoenix, and that then can be
None of that kinde, of which he is, but he.
That was 1621.
A mere 390 years later, Wednesday of this week, Troy Davis was murdered by the state of Georgia. Dahlia Lithwick used the occasion, and the deep uncertainty of his guilt by any fair-minded observer, to muse about how, she imagines, the fears of uncertainty can come to overwhelm the desire for finality and the death penalty will, itself, die out.
But the nature of the judicial system is that certainty and finality are always in tension. It's almost impossible to have both. And with the host of DNA exonerations, the well-publicized executions of at least arguably innocent men like Cameron Todd Willingham, the public may come to feel more inclined toward certainty than finality. I think that the kinds of errors supporters of the current system are willing to tolerate are simply not the kinds of errors most Americans can stomach. Most Americans will eventually reject the idea that there can be no check on profoundly entrenched racial bias, overzealous cops, jailhouse snitches, and crappy forensic evidence. Cohen's point, I think, is that those errors are also becoming harder to defend. A groundswell of doubt about the entire capital system was the motivation behind the most compelling slogan of Davis' supporters: "Too Much Doubt."
Advances in science and the empirical research on erroneous convictions are only going to create more doubt in the future. There is an almost unlimited supply of prosecutorial error and misconduct to draw on, and as it grows so will public uncertainty. And as the new media and social media broaden the debate about the death penalty, the folks who are leery of that uncertainty are ever more likely to be heard. America's conversation over capital punishment has long been weighted toward the interests of finality. But there is a growing space for reason and doubt and scientific certainty. It's hardly a surprise that prosecutors, courts, and clemency boards favor finality over certainty. That—after all—is the product they must show at the end of the day. But maybe the surprise, and the faint hope, of the massive outcry over the execution of Troy Davis, is that the rest of us have found a way to demand more from a system that has—for too long—only needed to be good enough.
In a rare coincidence of timing, and perhaps a herald calling out that Lithwick's "faint hope" might prove viable, a group of European physicists are today announcing that they believe they've measured neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light, something Einstein seemed to show was impossible. Dennis Overbye, reporting in the Times, cuts to the chase.
If true, it is a result that would change the world.
Alvaro de Rujula, a theorist at CERN, called the claim “flabbergasting.”
“If it is true, then we truly haven’t understood anything about anything,”
And then there's the Parole Board. Not the Board of Pardons and Paroles in Georgia whose world couldn't change and always understood everything about everything even if their understanding bore no relationship to the truth. No, I'm talking about the Ohio Parole Board.
We haven't managed to kill anyone here for three months what with stays and reprieves while those who plan aggravated murders for the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction try to come up with a way to convince U.S. District Judge Gregory Frost that from now on they'll actually kill people the way they say they will rather than in whatever willy-nilly and random method seems to get them dead.
So Kenneth Smith and Brett Hartmann and Billy Slagle didn't get killed.
Next up is Joey Murhpy, scheduled to be murdered on October 18. And I gotta tell you, I had about no hope at all.
This morning, the Parole Board said, unanimously, let him live.
In prison. Forever. LWOP. Death on the installment plan. Death in prison.
Horrific as that is, it's life. No small thing.
The Board said:
- The mitigation presented at trial, which is more fully understood today, coupled with the information presented during the clemency proceeding reveal that the applicant suffered abuse that was chronic and consistent from his own family. The applicant's history, as noted by former Justice Brown, could not have been worse and is more tragic than any before seen. As indicated in the dissenting opinion from the Ohio Supreme Court, the applicant was "destined for disaster." . . .
- There was a total lack of any positive influence in the applicant's life that could have countered the significant dysfunction and abuse he had to endure. There is no evidence of consistent or meaningful love or support shown to this applicant throughout his entire existence. Most of his family continues to show little regard for him and refuses to support him in any manner.
- Members of the victim's family, both at the time of trial and now support clemency. In addition, two jurors have indicated that had Life Without Parole been an option at the time, they would have voted for it instead of death. . . .
And so, they said, he should live.
Of course, it's not up to them. It's up to Governor Kasich.
Who can do whatever he wants. But it's clear right now, that if Kasich denies clemency, it won't be from cover. He won't be able to say that he's listening to the voice of the Parole Board. He won't be able to hide from the basic fact.
He'll have ordered a murder.
Which is so 20th Century.