And they raised a cheer for death.
It was a chilling moment, but also a clarifying one in that it validated the grimmest suspicions about at least some of those who support capital punishment. That support, after all, is often framed in terms of high morality, the argument being that only in taking an offender's life can a society truly express its revulsion over certain heinous crimes.
But when the audience at a recent GOP presidential debate cheered the observation that Texas Gov. Rick Perry has overseen a record 234 executions, that fig leaf was swept away. You knew this was not about some profound question for philosophers and august men. No, this was downturned thumbs in a Roman arena, vengeance putting on airs of justice, the need to see someone die.
People dress that need up in rags of righteousness and ethicality, but occasionally the disguise slips and it shows itself for what it is: the atavistic impulse of those for whom justice is synonymous with blood. If people really meant the arguments of high morality, you'd expect them to regard the death penalty with reverent sobriety. You would not expect them to cheer.
But that need to see death — the inability to imagine how justice can be had without it — is compelling. Indeed, there can be little doubt that is what is driving Troy Davis toward execution. He'll die on Wednesday, barring clemency from the state of Georgia.
No conclusive forensic evidence ties him to the crime of which he was convicted, the 1989 killing of Savannah police officer Mark MacPhail. Of the nine witnesses who said they saw Mr. Davis shoot Officer MacPhail, seven have since recanted, some saying police coerced them into lying. Of the two who have not recanted, one is a man identified by some witnesses as the real killer.
Yet on that dubious basis, Mr. Davis is scheduled to die.
It speaks to the power of that need, which was expressed with brutal candor by the dead officer's mother, Anneliese, in 2008 when Mr. Davis received a stay from the Supreme Court. "I'm furious, disgusted and disappointed," she said. "I want this over with." She said justice for her son requires death for Mr. Davis.
And that makes the letter recently sent by the family of another murder victim all the more remarkable.
James Anderson was killed in June near Jackson, Miss. He was a black man who was beaten and then run over with a pickup truck, allegedly by a group of white teenagers who, according to prosecutors, were looking for black people to target.
The killing was the definition of horrific. Yet in its letter, Mr. Anderson's family asks prosecutors not to seek the death penalty. It is against their faith, they wrote, adding that executing Mr. Anderson's killers will not "balance the scales," while sparing them may "spark a dialogue" that could help end capital punishment.
"Our loss will not be lessened by the state taking the life of another," they said.
That the family was able to find such charity of spirit in the depth of their own despair speaks well of them, yes. But it also proves there is nothing foreordained, nothing destined, about this equation of justice with blood. People can grow beyond that. A reverence for life can still trump a need for death.
Consider this column a lonely cheer for that.
Leonard Pitts' column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.