09/23/2011 05:54 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2011

From Troy Davis to Little Brothers

It's difficult to enter the U.S. legal system, particularly in the South, and start counting on hope to bail you out of trouble.

To say nothing of justice.

If you're foolhardy or unfortunate enough to find yourself at the mercy of the state, so much of your fate depends on things that don't necessarily have anything to do with your guilt or innocence.

Relying on all the available empirical data, we know -- or we should -- that if you are poor or brown or God forbid both, then your odds of being charged, spending time behind bars and facing a severe penalty are disproportionately high.

This was true for my father, it's true for me and it will likely be true for the next generation of black boys.

Which brings us back to Troy Davis and Georgia.

After an 11th-hour review of his case by the U.S. Supreme Court, Davis was put to death Wednesday night for the 1989 murder of a Savannah police officer despite serious questions about his guilt.

Hundreds of protestors outside the Georgia state prison in Jackson and thousands of supporters worldwide spent much of the evening praying for mercy that never came. It was painful to watch, from the tease of the three-hour delay to the ultimate recognition that a government's bloodlust is a formidable and almost unbeatable foe.

We should have known better, right?

I had witnessed the same agonizing rain dance many times before in my home state of Texas. Before there was Davis, there was Shaka Sankofa and Napoleon Beazley and dozens of other condemned men who dutifully went to the gurney.

Few things are more disheartening than fighting in vain.

But I mentioned something about hope earlier.

I found it yesterday morning, about 50 miles north of Georgia's death chamber and a nearly a dozen hours before Davis proclaimed his innocence with his final breath. In an elementary school in suburban Atlanta, I had the first meeting with my "Little" as part of a local mentoring program.

He's a 9-year-old fourth-grader. He has an older brother who hogs the remote control. His favorite meal is pepperoni pizza from Pizza Hut. He loves Dwyane Wade, hates the Falcons and wants to play basketball or be a police officer when he grows up. He blinks his eyes quite a bit when he's trying to answer your questions.

Basically, he's beautiful.

I imagine that Troy Davis was something like him, once. Weren't we all?

But of course, Georgia and its flawed legal machinations can be cruel -- if not fatal -- to the men who were once Little Brothers.

As always, our best hope is us.