Every now and again I’ll run across something that just makes me feel completely overcome with a sense of “I need to do everything I can to bring attention to this.” With that said, what I’m about to share with you is one of those things.
Over the course of my adult life, I’ve swayed back and forth on being for or against the death penalty. Believe it or not, it was my dabbling in Christianity during the spiritual journey I went on during my teens and twenties before settling into agnosticism that made me into a firm death penalty opponent. After all, how could any person who calls themselves a Christian, a follower of the teachings of Christ, be in favor of the capital punishment when Christ himself had his life unjustly taken away by capital punishment. Would Jesus be in favor of the death penalty if he were alive today? I think not. Anyway, my point is….I’m against the death penalty, a I’m telling you this as a disclaimer, because there’s a death penalty case that has sort of captured my attention and I wanted to bring it to yours, but I want you to examine the facts of the case and make up your own mind. The case in question involves a man named Troy Davis.
I suppose I should begin by telling you how I became aware of Troy Davis. As best I can recall, I first learned of Troy’s case back in June when I read a New York Times op-ed written by former Republican Congressman Bob Barr, a traditionally hard-line conservative and a staunch supporter of the death penalty. Speaking out publicly on Davis’ case, Barr wrote:
There is no abuse of government power more egregious than executing an innocent man. But that is exactly what may happen if the United States Supreme Court fails to intervene on behalf of Troy Davis.
My curiosity sparked, I began Googling around a bit and spent probably an entire afternoon educating myself about Troy’s case. Here’s the very short version of the case’s history:
In April 1989, an off-duty Savannah, Georgia police officer named Mark MacPhail responded to an incident in a parking lot where a homeless man was being assaulted with a gun by a man named Sylvester â€œReddâ€ Coles. Troy Davis and a few others were nearby in the parking lot. Witnesses at the scene say they even heard Coles threaten to shoot the homeless man if he didn’t give him his beer. When Officer MacPhail arrived to assist the homeless man being harassed, he was shot. Coles told police the police who arrived at the scene that he saw Troy Davis shoot Officer MacPhail. Davis was arrested, tried, convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death, mainly due to the eyewitness testimony of nine prosecution witnesses (no murder weapon was even found), one of them being Sylvester Coles, who were in the parking lot on the night of the murder and fingered Davis as the gunman. In the years that followed, seven of the nine witnesses recanted their testimony, saying that they were bullied into fingering Davis by cops and also feared that Coles might harm them or their families if they told police that he was the actual shooter. Another witness, who signed a statement to police on the night of the murder saying that he could not positively identify the shooter, only to later testify against Davis during his trial, has been unreachable by the attorneys handling Davis’ appeal. Over the last few years, attorneys representing Troy Davis have filed appeals based on the recanting of testimony by key witnesses and newly discovered exculpatory evidence in every court imaginable, only to have their requests to have the newly discovered evidence considered by the courts denied every step along the way. Davis has been close to being executed numerous times, only to have some judicial body step in to grant a last-minute stay of execution. Finally, on August 17th of this year, the United States Supreme Court, over the objections of Justices Thomas and Scalia, did something it hadn’t done in almost 50 years, while it was on recess no less: granted a writ of habeas corpus, the one filed by attorneys representing Troy Davis, and ordered a federal court in Georgia to “receive testimony and make findings of fact as to whether evidence that could not have been obtained at the time of trial clearly establishes [Davis'] innocence.”
Now, in all honesty, after reading Bob Barr’s New York Times op-ed and spending some time researching his case, life got in the way and I sort of forgot about Troy Davis. And then one day in August I received an email from a Gawker reader named Ledra Russell, who just so happened to live in Savannah, Georgia. She wrote to ask why I wasn’t writing for Gawk any longer, and then we somehow wound up having a bit of a back and forth email exchange in the wee hours of the morning. At some point a few days later I Googled her. It was then that I discovered something sort of remarkable: Ledra was a friend and fierce advocate of Troy Davis. Here’s how she described how Troy came into her life when she testified on his behalf at his first clemency hearing before the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole in 2007:
To be very honest, I became acquainted with him for a reason that was quite selfish. I have long been a death penalty opponent in theory, which is a very easy position to take when one is an average, middle class white woman who wouldn’t know tragedy or injustice if it bit her on the leg. No, I wanted to test my conviction and engage with a person who had willfully taken human life; could I then claim to place the same sanctity on the life that takes another as I would for poor soul whose life was taken? Pompous, yes. Selfish and arrogant? Absolutely.
I delved into the world of death row prisoner websites, and found the one that didn’t mention romance or money; innocence or being shafted by society. On the contrary, Troy Davis asked for a friend â€“ man or woman â€“ and nothing of innocence. I had found my experiment. I am appalled, but thankful, as I know I will never be the same.
And so I wrote. And he wrote back. Tentative, awkward and polite. Back and forth we went, writing letters. During the fourth or fifth letter, he mentioned, and I do mean mentioned, that he was innocent. Well, certainly. Everyone on death row is. I wrote back how awful it must be to be sentenced for something of which you are innocent. Again, arrogant and condescending, admittedly.
I tell you this not because I am proud of it â€“ on the contrary, it disgusts me â€“ but rather because I feel it is important for you all to know my intent going into this.
Surprisingly, I had never researched Troy or his supposed crime, which seems odd, as even now, knowing what I know, I still pour over all of the information that I can get my hands on.
She told me that after pouring over all of the facts of Troy’s case, not to mention actually getting to know him, she became convinced of his innocence and dedicated herself to being a friend to him and working on his behalf to have his conviction overturned. She says that he’s essentially become a part of her family:
He sends my (husband), Walker, articles on new technology used to treat herniated disks, from which he suffers. He sends me Sudoku and crossword puzzles to keep my stress levels down. He sends anniversary cards to my soon-to-be brother and sister-in-law, whom he’s never met. My parents are in the middle of what will likely be divorce, after 34 years, and Troy has given everything to reunite them. He counsels my mom and my dad, equally and without judgment. Idealistic and naÃ¯ve? Yes, but kind? Even more so.
Here’s a Troy with Ledra’s husband, Walker:
And here’s Ledra and her father with Troy:
Ledra told me that before the recent ruling by the Supreme Court, she and many others close to him had all but given up hope that the justice system might somehow save Troy Davis’ life:
In all honesty, no one expected the writ to the Supreme Court to be granted. We were just buying time, and moving toward what a realist would tell you was the inevitable. Their order to remand the case to the federal court for an evidentiary hearing shocked the hell out of all of us. We always knew which day to expect a ruling or a clemency decision or a stay, so we were prepared for good or bad. This one was issued during the Court’s recess, so yeah, it blew our minds. Troy actually had to have surgery for a ruptured achilles, and was still in the hospital when the order was issued. He’s been fighting for this for 20 years, and even when we all wore our masks and pretended like we thought everything will be okay, there was an acceptance in his voice that his best act couldn’t conceal. It’s not there anymore. When we talk about our list of things we’ll do when he gets out, he’s not just playing along anymore. It’s so daunting, and honestly, I’m petrified. Everything relies on the recanting witnesses, and although it’s one thing to sign an affidavit, it’s entirely another to admit perjury in court. Most of them are still in Savannah and are afraid of Sylvester Coles, who actually murdered Mark MacPhail. A few of them were questioned by the Board of Pardons and Paroles at his clemency hearing, and had to come in through an underground entrance because they were afraid of what Coles would do. We will have subpoena power, so for the first time since 1991, he’ll get to be questioned. It’s hard to say whether they’re optimistic; this whole thing is unprecedented, and no one knows exactly what our burden is or what the judge’s power is. (Troy)’s got a phenomenal firm behind him, and I believe in them completely. Right now, the State has 45 days to file a brief, and his attorneys will have another 45 to respond, so, thankfully, the hearing will be a few months away.
In closing, I’d just like to encourage you to make up your own mind about this case. Obviously, as someone who’s become convinced of Troy Davis’ innocence, I’m a bit biased, but there’s a plethora of information on the case out there on the web. Go out and do your own digging. At the very least, read the Wikipedia page on the case and/or watch the report on it CNN aired during the summer that I’ve embedded below. If you should feel compelled to help in some way, you can find out how to do so by visiting the website set up by Troy’s family and friends. And finally, no mater what your stance is on the death penalty, I think every American should read this New Yorker piece on the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham in Texas, because even one innocent person put to death by the state is absolutely unacceptable in the United States of America. Let’s not let it happen again.
Email Cajun Boy at firstname.lastname@example.org