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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

Playing the Odds

On the surface no one would confuse Amanda Knox, the young Seattle woman released yesterday in Italy after spending four years in prison for a murder she says – and much evidence supports – that she did not commit, and Troy Davis, the Georgia death row inmate who died by lethal injection in late September.

The story of the white, middle class Knox, constantly surrounded by supportive friends and family – people sophisticated enough to put and keep her story on the international news agenda – is at one level a textbook case of how good lawyers, good PR and a sympathetic central character can drive a courtroom narrative.

By contrast, Davis, the African-American, high school dropout with a spotty work record never saw his case – and his 22 years on Georgia’s death row – seep into the national awareness until he was literally days from death. Supporters of Davis did succeed in stimulating a certain level of international outrage over what was seen by many as a simple, racially-inspired miscarriage of justice. All appeals failed, as did Davis’ claim that he had not killed a Savannah police officer in 1989, and his execution went forward.

It is charged, with some good reason, that Knox was a victim of a terribly flawed Italian justice system, a system willing to use outdated forensic techniques, as well as a culture that treats women – just ask the Italian prime minister – as less than equal. Davis, until last month, one of about 3,500 Americans on death row, may also have been a victim of a fatally flawed American justice system that can’t treat minorities and the underclass as fairly as it treats the rest of us.

On the morning after Amanda Knox was released from her Italian prison, I’m betting most Americans believe – I do – that justice was finally done in Perugia. Do I – and can we – have the same sense of certainty about the 34 executions that have taken place in the United States so far in 2011? What if just one of those death row inmates – Troy Davis or someone else – had been a victim of the bad process, and even the bad motives that improperly imprisoned Amanda Knox?

When I saw the pictures yesterday of Amanda Knox going free I also saw the image of those who protested Troy Davis’ execution in Georgia. Two cases, two very different people from very different backgrounds, two starkly different outcomes.

I also went looking for the starkly elegant, yet at the same time disturbing, language the late Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun used to describe a lethal execution in 1994.

In his famous dissent in a Texas death penalty review case – Texas has more than 300 on its death row, 40% black, 30% Hispanic – Blackmun wrote that, “from this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death. For more than 20 years I have endeavored…to develop…rules that would lend more than the mere appearance of fairness to the death penalty endeavor…Rather than continue to coddle the court’s delusion that the desired level of fairness has been achieved…I feel…obligated simply to concede that the death penalty experiment has failed. It is virtually self-evident to me now that no combination of procedural rules or substantive regulations ever can save the death penalty from its inherent constitutional deficiencies…”

Blackmun was writing, as he noted, 20 years after the Supreme Court had  “declared that the death penalty must be imposed fairly and with reasonable consistency or not at all, and despite the effort of the states and courts to devise legal formulas and procedural rules to meet this…challenge, the death penalty remains fraught with arbitrariness, discrimination…and mistake…”

Amanda Knox spent four years in jail in Italy for a crime she says she did not commit. Mistakes were made. The Italian justice system is flawed. Good lawyers and much publicity kept the case alive. Justice was late but finally done.

Mistakes were made. It begs the question: how can we be so certain our justice system works with the precision of a Swiss watch? Can we play the odds with perfection? What about arbitrariness, discrimination and mistake?

Truth is we can’t be certain and there is plenty of evidence we haven’t always been right. Amid the rejoicing as Amanda heads home to Seattle, the Knox case should also be cause for reflection, reconsideration and reform right here at home.

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