Five years ago today, Georgia put Troy Davis to death. With a mountain of doubt about his conviction and allegations that witnesses were coerced, the entire world was watching Georgia the night of September 21, 2011 –Amnesty International had mobilized its entire global movement – joined by luminaries around the world like Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu, and Pope Benedict XVI — to call on authorities in Georgia to stop the execution. Georgia ignored the voices of over one million activists worldwide and put Troy to death.
Troy was on death row for over two decades before he was finally executed. In that time he became a leader himself in the movement to end the death penalty, with his steadfast spirit and unshakeable faith in justice inspiring activists around the world. His case became a rallying cry that ignited the abolition movement, drawing hundreds and thousands of people to devote their time and energy to achieving justice.
Countless Amnesty members and activists were inspired to work to end the death penalty after learning about the horrific injustice visited upon Troy. I was one of them – as a grad student in Atlanta, Troy’s case brought me face to face with the truth about the criminal justice system in the United States. Since then, I’ve devoted my life to ensuring that one day, no one will be executed the way Troy was.
Troy himself saw the work to save his life as part of that larger movement, telling us before he died that we must continue this fight and ensure there is never another Troy Davis.
Today, Amnesty and our partners and allies work to follow the imperative Troy left us. Five years later, the flaws in the death penalty remain entirely unchanged: capital punishment remains a fundamentally broken practice that denies people their dignity and human rights. The racial bias, the excessive costs, and the unthinkable risk of executing the wrongly convicted are just as present today as they were the day Troy was executed.
But as deeply flawed as the practice is and always will be, the U.S. has taken considerable steps forward. Since Troy was killed five years ago, three more states have abolished the death penalty – Connecticut, Maryland, and most recently Delaware. Another three states – Pennsylvania, Washington, and Colorado – have instituted a moratorium on executions. These states have recognized the grave risk of creating more Troy Davises, and have taken real steps to ensure that injustice will not happen within their borders.
But many more states must take this crucial step. Two will have that opportunity this election: California and Nebraska.
Both states have ballot questions that give voters a chance to abolish the death penalty for good, ensuring this abuse of human rights won’t happen in their states. But California faces an even more pointed question. Voters there will be faced with two competing ballot propositions on the death penalty this November, one to abolish the death penalty (Prop 62) and another that claims to “fix” the system’s fundamental flaws (Prop 66).
Of course, any observer of Troy’s case knows these flaws can never be fixed. In his two decades on death row, Troy was in and out of courtrooms trying desperately to prove to judge after judge that his conviction was a mistake, but in the end he could never overcome the legal hurdles placed in front of him. Despite clear signs of racial bias, accusations of police misconduct and coercion, and a host of recanting witnesses, authorities in Georgia were relentless in the pursuit of carrying out Troy’s sentence.
If supporters of Prop 66 have their way, important protections to prevent the execution of the wrongfully convicted will be stripped away. Appeals will have arbitrary time limits, and unqualified lawyers will be forced to take on death row appeals. In short, everything that allowed the execution a possibly wrongfully convicted man to take place in Georgia will be imported into California.
If authorities in California are in such a rush to execute, they can be certain they will create even more Troy Davises.
Today, five years after we watched in horror as a possibly innocent man lost his life, we must recommit ourselves to ending the death penalty forever. California is a great place to start.