Troy Davis execution leads to a storm of protest in Europe

Even in a region long disdainful of American attitudes toward the death penalty, public officials, editorial writers and activists across Western Europe reacted with fury on Thursday to news that Troy Davis was executed in Georgia on Wednesday night.

People held placards from Amnesty during a protest in support of Troy Davis on Wednesday in Paris.

Despite the divisive sovereign debt crisis, the sagging economy and conflict in the Middle East, the news media in Britain, France and elsewhere devoted continuous coverage to the Davis case this week, emphasizing that Mr. Davis, a black man, had been convicted of killing a white police officer in a Southern state. Many commentators denounced American justice as brutal and flawed.

More than anything, however, the outcry underlined the profound divergence in opinion concerning capital punishment in the United States and Western Europe, where the death penalty is no longer a topic of debate.

“The United States are a very democratic country, but these are barbaric practices,” said Laurent Fabius, a prominent Socialist lawmaker and former French prime minister, speaking on Europe 1 radio.

Robert Badinter, who as justice minister oversaw the abolition of the death penalty in France in 1981, called Mr. Davis’s execution a “defeat for humanity.”

“This affair will remain as a stain on the justice system of the United States,” Mr. Badinter said.

Convicted of the 1989 killing of a Savannah, Ga., police officer, Mr. Davis, 42, maintained his innocence until the end. He was put to death by lethal injection after the Supreme Court declined to act on a petition from his lawyers to stay the execution.

Although other American death penalty cases have attracted world attention in recent decades, Mr. Davis’s case provoked particular interest, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit group in Washington. In part, he said, the outrage reflected Amnesty International’s decision to publicize the case several years ago.

Hundreds of protesters had gathered outside the American Embassies in London and Paris on Wednesday to call for a stay of execution. The European Union had repeatedly urged the same, given what Catherine Ashton, the bloc’s foreign policy chief, called the “serious and compelling doubts” about Mr. Davis’s guilt.

“The E.U. opposes the use of capital punishment in all cases and under all circumstances, and calls for a global moratorium as a first step towards its universal abolition,” Ms. Ashton said in a statement.

In Germany, Claudia Roth, a leader of the Green Party, said Mr. Davis’s death was “a cynical and inhumane spectacle that occasions mourning and horror.” Tom Chivers, an editor at The Daily Telegraph in Britain, called capital punishment a “barbaric hangover from an Old Testament morality.” Even Americans who support it, he wrote, must “want it to be credible — a terrible judgment passed down upon the guilty, not a savage lottery of murder.”

With passage in 2000 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, capital punishment was abolished across the European Union. Germany had ended the practice in 1949, Britain in 1969 and France in 1981. Those decisions were far from universally popular at the time, but a wide-ranging consensus has since emerged that capital punishment is a backward and unjust practice, analysts say. Still, a handful of politicians on the fringes of the right still call for a debate over executions.

Doing away with the death penalty is “seen as an established norm of modern society,” said Nicole Bacharan, a French historian and political scientist at the Institute for Political Studies in Paris. Most of the French have come to consider capital punishment as a moral question, Ms. Bacharan said — and one with an unequivocal answer.

It puzzles many Europeans, then, that capital punishment persists in 34 of the 50 American states.

“They don’t understand that Americans believe you can lose your right to life,” saidAndrew Hammel, a former Texas defense lawyer who is now an assistant professor at Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, Germany.

The deep cultural influence of the Roman Catholic Church has imbued many Europeans with a belief in “unconditional human dignity,” Mr. Hammel said, a belief that the state “must respect human beings whatever they’ve done.” The Protestant tradition of the United States, by contrast, emphasizes individual responsibility, he said.

In further contrast with the United States, most European judicial systems rely on jurists who are appointed rather than elected. Activists working to abolish the death penalty in the United States often suggest that political considerations affect the thinking of judges and prosecutors.

Nicholas Kulish contributed reporting from Berlin, and Ravi Somaiya from London.


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