Execution in Illinois Stirs Debate On Crime And a Fit Punishment

THE execution this week of an Illinois man who had proclaimed his innocence on the Internet is revivifying the debate over society's ultimate sanction.

Critics say the death of Girvies Davis despite a ''questionable'' confession underscores the hardening attitude Americans feel toward crime and punishment -- and presages a rise in the number of executions in the United States. Victims' rights groups welcomed the execution Wednesday.

In rejecting a clemency appeal, Gov. Jim Edgar (R) took a tough-on-crime stance by refusing to bow to pressure from an unusually broad spectrum opposed to the execution.

A tide of controversy has surrounded the case as legal scholars questioned the evidence used by an all-white jury in 1980 to impose the death sentence on Davis, who was black.

''The sentence handed down by the jury for this horrible crime was appropriate,'' Mr. Edgar said Tuesday. ''I am convinced that [Davis] is responsible for the murder for which he received the death penalty and at least three others.''

Davis was convicted of three 1979 murders and was serving separate, 40-year sentences for two of them. He admitted to taking part in robberies in which two of the people were shot to death but denied he killed them.

The prosecutor and the families of victims said the decision to carry out the execution was justified.

''Girvies Davis had his appeals, he had his justice for 15 years. Now it's time for the families of the victims to have their justice,'' says Bob Haida, the prosecutor in the case. The US Supreme Court dismissed a final appeal by Davis's lawyers on Monday.

But the decision was criticized by a large spectrum of Americans including Republicans, Democrats, and opponents and advocates of the death penalty. Legal scholars, church leaders, and others had asked for clemency for Davis in protest marches, phone calls, letters, and messages on the Internet, where some 75,000 people saw his photograph and heard his appeal for leniency.

''This case is an embarassment even for serious proponents of the death penalty,'' says John Conyers (D) of Michigan, senior member of the House Judiciary Committee. Mr. Conyers, who asked Edgar on Monday to halt the execution, called Davis's punishment ''patently unfair.''

Critics say the case is unprecedented: Davis was the first person since capital punishment was restored in 1976 to be executed for being an accomplice in a slaying in which he played no direct role, according to Northwestern University Prof. David Protess, who has reviewed all the execution cases of the past 20 years. The suspected triggerman, Richard Holman, was indicted but never prosecuted for the killing, he says.

Legal scholars argue, moreover, that the evidence incriminating Davis was too weak to justify the use of capital punishment. Police found no physical evidence or witnesses to implicate Davis in the 1978 murder of Charles Biebel, a wheelchair-bound man who was robbed and shot in his Belleville, Ill., trailer home.

The main evidence against Davis was a handwritten confession that he allegedly gave police after his arrest in 1979. In it, he admitted involvement in the Biebel murder and more than 10 other then-unsolved armed robberies and killings in the vicinity. Davis said authorities drafted the confession and forced him to sign it by threatening to kill him -- which police deny. Police later convicted two other men for at least three of the crimes listed in the confession.

''Where the evidence is this weak it is not appropriate to bring down the finality of capital punishment,'' says Steven Lubet, a law professor at Northwestern.

Critics contend that police abuses, poor counsel, and discrimination by an all-white jury led to injustice for Davis.

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