Thursday, September 22, 2011

How to Justify a Killing

I am quoting liberally from myself in the attempt to frame my thoughts about last night's killing of Troy Davis. Please indulge me in the first section of rather dry academics.

“There is… consistency between what a person knows or believes and what he (sic) does” (Festinger, 1957, p. 1). According to Festinger, we are unconsciously strive for consistency between what we believe and how we act. Acting against our beliefs sets up inconsistencies that we feel compelled to make sense of by either changing our behaviours or our beliefs. In Festinger’s (1957) opening chapter he illustrates a smoker rationalizing the dangers of smoking. The smoker tells him or herself that it is too hard to quit, or that smoking makes them feel good, or that it can’t be as bad as people think. This rationalizing of the inconsistency of smoking when the smoker knows it is a dangerous habit brings the belief and the action into consonance.

However, Festinger postulated that these inconsistencies cannot always be rationalized into consonance. When they can’t for some reason, or when the attempts to rationalize fail, then the inconsistency remains. “Under such circumstances – that is in the presence of an inconsistency – there is psychological discomfort” (Festinger, 1957, p. 2), which he referred to as cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive Dissonance Theory states that dissonance is psychologically damaging and that a person will be motivated “to try to reduce dissonance and achieve consonance” (Festinger, 1957, p. 2). When confronted by cognitive dissonance (i.e., when one’s behaviours and beliefs are not congruent), a person will not only seek to abate the dissonance, but will also seek to “avoid situations or information which would likely increase the dissonance” (Festinger, 1957, p. 3).

Setting aside the morality issues surrounding the death-penalty as a punitive tool, I think that there is some worth in framing Troy Davis's execution around cognitive dissoance.

Troy Davis was convicted in 1991 of the beating and shooting death of a police officer (that's the extremely short version). He was convicted on eye-witness testimony and some circumstantial evidence around a gun that he once owned being the same caliber as the gun that killed Officer MacPhail. However, there was no direct-evidence linking Davis to the actual killing. Davis for his part has never denied being at the crime scene. He has always maintained that he didn't actually kill MacPhail.

In North American courts of law the burden of proof lies with the prosecuters. It is up to them to establish the accused's guilt, beyond a reasonable doubt. In 1991, with their witnesses' testimonies, prosecutors acheived that benchmark in the minds of the jury. Davis was sentenced to death and the process of appeals etc... began. This is the place where a discussion about the morality of capital punishment should take place.

However over the years. seven of the eye witnesses have recanted their testimony; many of them claiming they were coerced by the police into signing statements, that as illiterates the witnesses couldn't read or understand. One of the prosecution witnesses is widely-believed to be the actual shooter; deflecting blame from himself by accusing Davis. Again it has been pointed out, there is no actual, physical forensic evidence linking Davis to this horrible crime.

It would seem, to my non-law-trained brain, that there is ample room for the seeds of doubt to be sewn. At the very least, it would seem to me that it would be reasonable at this point to stop the execution timetable, and just make sure the State was killing the right person. After all there is a maxim in demorcratic societies along the lines of: better ten guilty men go free, than one innocent man be punished. In other words, we err on the side of caution.

And yet, last night Troy Davis was executed by the State of Georgia.

The Georgia prosecutors are a case study in dissonance reduction.

The prosecution said right up to end - and continue to say - they feel that the recanted testimonies and the pointing to a lack of physical evidence are a sideshow, aimed at distracting the puiblic from "the truth"; that Troy Davis killed a cop. The Georgia prosecuters are so tied to their belief - to their belief in themselves and to their self-worth - that they denied a request from Davis' defense team for Davis to take a polygraph test in order to establish some reasonable doubt. Ironic coming from a State who's prosecution teams routinely attempt to get polygraph evidence admitted.

The Georgia prosecutors likely define themselves as:

  • crusaders for the rights of victims
  • the guardians of the public trust
  • the acheivers of justice for families
  • the punishers of criminals
  • the leaders in the fight for safe communities

These are all noble characteristics, to be sure. However, it would seem that the prosecutors are so invested in this self-image that they are unable to accept information that challenges their beliefs. For them to accept the recanted evidence is to accept - what they would preceive - a personal flaw, a failing, a challenge to their integrity.

According to Festinger, the human brain needs connsonance. It needs to have its beliefs and actions in sync. To exist otherwise is to cause psychological damage. In this case the prosecutors have two options to reduce their dissonace. They can choose to accept the new evidence, accept that they may have made a mistake and work to fix it. They can reopen the trial, ask the state to delay (at the very least) the execution while they re-examine the evidence and work to commute - if needed - the death sentence or overturn the conviction. This option would have spared Davis' life. It may have kept him in prison but it would have kept him alive. In short, they would have to modify the way they self-identify.

The other option for the prosecutors to acheive consonance is to reject the dissonant information out of hand. Like a smoker who denegrates warning labelling on cigarette packs, a climate change denyer who invokes the econonmy, or a rapist who says "she was asking for it", the prosecutors in Georgia decided to reduce their dissonace by deriding the advocates for clemency and ignoring the evidence that was under their noses. Their statement was that all the evidence that should have lead them away from Davis' execution, was a sideshow meant to delay justice.

In the end, the prosecutors will sleep well having confirmed to themselves that they acted in a way that affirms their self-worth.

And while he may not have been truly innocent, a man has died under a cloud of uncertainty because people in power wanted the easy way out.

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