Can capital punishment ever be justified?

Next Wednesday at four o'clock London time, a man will be executed in the state of Georgia. Capital punishment is an extremely divisive issue that separates even those who represent similar ideological positions on the political spectrum. One is allowed to be undecided, a common opinion being that you wouldn't know where you truly stand until the issue directly affects you in someway. Yet regardless of positioning the issue of capital punishment must rest on a crucial crux- overwhelming evidence that the accused is guilty.

The man in Georgia facing almost certain execution cannot be held in this category, or at least there exists convincing evidence that could potentially call for a revised sentence. Troy Davis has been on death row for nearly 20 years following his conviction in 1989. He was accused and found guilty of killing local police officer Mark MacPhail in Savannah, Georgia. However, in the years following Mr Davis' conviction seven of the nine non-police witnesses have recanted their testimonies, many even alleging that they were subject to police coercion and intimidation techniques during the trial. In addition to this no physical evidence exists that links Davis to the crime.

Amnesty International have taken up the cause for Davis' clemency. Whilst they do not advocate a definite position concerning Davis' guilt they maintain an argument that is there "is room for doubt, there's no room for execution." This is surely something that both the pro- and anti- capital punishment camps can agree on (or at least concede to.)

Considering the enormous consequences of the margin for error in death row cases it seems, at least to me, that granting the state the power to kill individuals is a hugely questionable act, and it is perhaps this point that lies at the heart of my own personal questioning of the validity of capital punishment. Rothbard provides an answer to this concern proposing that capital punishment be initiated only at the victims request, therefore removing the state's overwhelming influence and putting justice in the hands of those that require it. But how do we ask the wishes of the dead? Rothbard proposes that we all, anticipating our potential murders, instruct others of our wishes in the style of a will. He suggests that,

The deceased can instruct heirs, courts, and any other interested parties on how he would wish a murderer of his to be treated. In that case, pacifists, liberal intellectuals, et al. can leave clauses in their wills instructing law enforcement authorities not to kill, or even not to press charges against a criminal in the event of their murder; and the authorities would be required to obey.

Whilst debating the death penalty requires endless time and a limitless word count, cases like Troy Davis' continually arise addressing our need to come up with a definitive answer to questions surrounding the death penalty. If we are to support it guilt needs to be clear, with no possible alternatives. In addition the death penalty should represent justice being enacted between people, not between the accused and the authorities, as a result, I'd argue that Rothbard might be on to something.