But there’s a danger here for advocates of criminal justice reform. After all, in a world without the death penalty, Davis probably wouldn’t have been retried or exonerated. His appeals would still have been denied, he would have spent the rest of his life in prison, and far fewer people would have known or cared about his fate.
Instead, he received a level of legal assistance, media attention and activist support that few convicts can ever hope for. And his case became an example of how the very finality of the death penalty can focus the public’s attention on issues that many Americans prefer to ignore: the overzealousness of cops and prosecutors, the limits of the appeals process and the ugly conditions faced by many of the more than two million Americans currently behind bars.
Simply throwing up our hands and eliminating executions entirely, by contrast, could prove to be a form of moral evasion — a way to console ourselves with the knowledge that no innocents are ever executed, even as more pervasive abuses go unchecked. We should want a judicial system that we can trust with matters of life and death, and that can stand up to the kind of public scrutiny that Davis’s case received. And gradually reforming the death penalty — imposing it in fewer situations and with more safeguards, which other defendants could benefit from as well — might do more than outright abolition to address the larger problems with crime and punishment in America.