Death Penalty Part 1: Troy Davis
This is the first installment of a two-part post regarding the death penalty in the united States. The first installment will focus on the problem of wrongly convicted Americans being sentenced to death; the second, on undoubtably guilty ones, convicted of heinous crimes.
Today, at 7 p.m., Troy Davis was slated to be murdered by the state of Georgia for his alleged shooting of a (white) police officer, Mark MacPhail, in 1989. Since his 1991 conviction, seven of the original nine eyewitnesses who testified against him have recanted, saying that they were coerced or threatened by the police into giving false testimony; and one of the two unrepentant witnesses was a fellow suspect in the shooting. There is no physical evidence against Davis- none. No gun residue, no DNA, no fingerprints. Nothing. He is an innocent man, and his life is fodder for the careers and racial prejudice of Georgia officials.
I wish I had gotten involved in the fight for Troy Davis’ life earlier, but I have only become active in the past few days. I have always opposed the death penalty in any case, but Davis’ story struck me as particularly heartbreaking because of his obvious innocence. The death penalty always makes me think of Jesus Christ, in that Christ himself was a victim of capital punishment. Jesus Christ=Criminal Sentenced to Die=Troy Davis. Jesus Christ=Troy Davis? Personally, I believe that Christ is in all of us.
This summer, I read Sister Helen Prejean’s gutwrenching books on her personal experience working as an anti-death-penalty activist and as a spiritual adviser to condemned men- “Dead Man Walking” and “The Death of Innocents.” They describe in detail the racially prejudiced and socioeconomically motivated world of capital punishment. She vividly recounts the last day in the life of a “Dead Man Walking-” the hours locked in the Death House in the heart of the prison, the last phone call to family, the last meal, the diaper, the last words, the family of the victim there to watch the death of the man who took their child, spouse, parent, friend away. Think of it- the guard who serves you your last meal is the same person to inject poisonous fluids into your veins! The Death Penalty is surreal- because it’s supposed to be surreal. That way, people living outside the world of the penitentiary are free to disassociate themselves from the murder their tax dollars are facilitating, to normalize barbarism. It becomes acceptable because it is not designed to be seen as functioning as a part of the everyday world. We make the whole thing so bizarre that civilians do not see it as part of our essential culture- even though it is. We can go about our daily life without ever having to come to grips with the fact that at that moment Troy Davis is sweating out his final moments, breathing his last deep breaths of stale prison air, refusing the customary last meal, because he’s already had four “last meals” and he refuses to play games anymore.
Two days ago I found myself doodling this portrait of Troy Davis in my art history notebook:
I realized that I couldn’t get him out of my head. Ever since an incident in my formative years- which I will discuss on this blog in the near future- I have held as essential belief that a person who sees evil, acknowledges it, recognizes that they have the ability to fight that evil, and then willfully does nothing, is as guilty as the evildoer. I had knowledge that Troy Davis’ innocent life was in imminent danger; therefore, I had to do everything in my power to lessen that threat. I made dozens of little handwritten notes with the URL of the Amnesty International Save Troy Davis petition, with the phone numbers of Georgia’s governor, Pardon Board, and the District Attorney in charge of prosecuting Davis. I gave those out to friends, acquaintances, and passerby today. Then I made myself this sign and pinned it to my shirt:
Never underestimate the power of the visual (I guess that’s the M.O. of this blog, isn’t it?). For years, Davis’ supporters have been gathering under the slogan “I Am Troy Davis,” using the striking imagery of Davis’ photograph held over their faces:
One thing that always come across to me when reading about the condemned and the people around them is the lesson of intense humanity this heinous institution teaches- moments of incredible love and incredible hate, faults and perfections, the hurt that one person can lavish on another and the healing we can likewise bestow. There’s a moment in “The Death of Innocents” when the convicted man, Joseph O’Dell, and his legal aid representative, fall in love and marry on the day of his execution. They aren’t allowed to touch each other, so in lieu of a kiss to seal the ceremony, they breathe into each others’ mouths and “so exchange the breath of their bodies as communion.” The passage resonated with me and I later illustrated it:
At 7 o’clock today, at the scheduled time of Troy Davis’ murder (I refuse to call it a sanitized name like “execution”), I went to a nearby chapel, and prayed for Davis’ family, and for the family of Mark MacPhail, and for all the people who have given them aid, and for all the people who have failed them (I believe that I fall into both of the last two categories). At 7:20, I left the chapel and went to the library to look up the news and find out what Davis’ last words had been. Instead, I found an altogether different news bulletin: “BREAKING: TROY DAVIS GRANTED A REPRIEVE.” I don’t think I’ve ever gone so fast from a state of total sorrow to a state of total elation. True, it’s not a pardon or a release, but it’s another chance for justice to be served.
EDIT: The reprieve was a sham. Troy Davis was murdered by the State of Georgia at 11:08 p.m. His last words asked God to have mercy on the souls of his killers. THIS is the crime. THIS is the atrocity.
Now we have to work like we never have before to make sure that he will not have died in vain.