Before I moved back to my hometown to work for the repeal of California's death penalty, I spent a few years living in Atlanta, Georgia -- home to Coca Cola, Cartoon Network, and a criminal justice system intent on executing a man who may well be innocent. I've never met him, but Troy Anthony Davis, on Georgia's death row since 1991 despite grave doubts concerning his guilt, is the reason I left the work I was pursuing in graduate school and devoted myself to working against the death penalty.
I remember the exact moment. In September 2008, I got a call from a classmate who knew I had been involved in human rights activism in the past. He asked if I'd ever heard of Troy Davis, and I confessed that I hadn't. He told me he was scheduled to be executed in a few days and asked me to research the case and let him know if I wanted to get involved. When I got home, I Googled the name -- I invite you to do the same.
I learned that Troy, a young African American man, was convicted in Savannah in 1989 of killing a white police officer named Mark Allen McPhail. I learned that no physical evidence connected him to the crime, but that nine eyewitnesses had testified against him at trial. Then I learned that seven of them altered or recanted their testimony, many alleging pressure and coercion from police officers to identify Troy as the man who killed their fellow officer. And I learned that one of the remaining witnesses had been implicated as the real killer -- the one who had originally implicated Troy.
Like many people who are confronted with the facts of the case, I was originally skeptical. I wondered how such seemingly glaring problems could have gone unaddressed and thought I must be missing another piece. I investigated further, even reading the arguments of the prosecutor who secured Troy's death sentence, but even there I found no missing piece that might explain away my doubts of Troy's guilt. Spencer Lawton, the former Savannah District Attorney, finally broke his public silence on the case when he thought the appeals process was over, publishing in the Savannah Morning News his response to the claims made by Troy and his global movement of supporters. It was unconvincing.
At its root, this case comes down to the credibility of witnesses, because nothing else can give us any clues as to who committed the horrible crime that took the life of Officer McPhail. The problem is that neither side believes the witnesses. With seven recantations, most of the witnesses were either lying then or are lying now. The state of Georgia has consistently maintained that their credibility 20 years ago cannot be impugned, but that their allegations now of being pressured by police have no credibility at all.
Troy's execution date that September came, and I marched with activists in Atlanta that morning. The day before, I was nearly arrested trying to deliver a letter to the Attorney General concerning the case (apparently not having an appointment meant I was trespassing). I drove down to Jackson for the execution, where death row is located, and on the way we got a call that the Supreme Court has issued an emergency stay of execution. That was Troy's second execution date. He's had one more since, but remains alive on death row. His final appeals have now been denied and a fourth execution date is expected soon.
I've since learned a lot more about the justice system and the death penalty, but it's still hard for me to wrap my mind around how this could happen. In Troy's most recent appeal, the judge who ordered to hear the recanting witnesses for himself ruled that even though the case "may not be ironclad" and there is "minimal doubt," Troy had not proven his innocence by "clear and convincing evidence."
That's what I've learned about the death penalty: life and death tread the gap between phrases like "minimal doubt" and "clear and convincing."
Thousands of people around the world have lent their voices to the movement to save Troy Davis' life and demand that the state never executes where doubt exists. Marching with the mantra "I Am Troy Davis," these activists and advocates know that when justice is denied to one, when one innocent person can be killed by the state, then justice is denied to all and we are all Troy Davis. Visit Amnesty International to learn how you can join the growing global movement and tell the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles to stay true to their mission and refuse to take a possibly innocent life.
Image credit: Georgians For Alternatives to the Death Penalty (GFADP)