As we approach the second anniversary of the execution of Troy Anthony Davis, I have been reading “I Am Troy Davis” the new book by Jen Marlow and Martina Davis-Correia (Troy’s late sister and a powerful force for human rights). You should read it, too. You’ll be moved, like I’ve been, to renew and redouble your commitment to abolish the death penalty.
For me, it is bringing back memories, both painful and inspiring.
I started on staff with Amnesty about one month after the February 2007 release of the report “Where is the Justice For Me,” the first of what was to be four reports on Troy Davis. It was the first thing I read as an Amnesty staffer. I had come from Texas, where I had been a volunteer in death penalty abolition efforts, so I had seen my share of sleeping lawyers, hanging judges, and callous Governors.
Nonetheless, the Troy Davis report shocked me. The case was weak enough to begin with, based mostly on shaky witness testimony, but with 7 of those witnesses recanting or changing their stories, what was left? How was there even a case? Surely, I thought, the courts should intervene.
But the report reminded me that, according to our current jurisprudence, actual innocence is no barrier to execution, never mind doubts about guilt. Federal courts had indeed failed to intervene, citing the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), a federal law passed by Congress in 1996 that sought to speed up executions by limiting the ability of federal courts to review state-imposed death sentences. And in June of 2007, the Supreme Court declined to hear the Davis case, and his execution was set for July 17.
The clemency process, in the hands of the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles, did not provide for much optimism, but after some hard work and serious organizing, and a marathon 9-hour hearing, the Georgia clemency board halted the planned execution for more review, writing that it would:
“not allow an execution to proceed in this state unless and until its members are convinced that there is no doubt as the guilt of the accused.”
We weren’t naïve enough to believe this would hold, but the words were there. It’s not a bad policy, or at less a less horrible policy, to halt executions when there is doubt. All executions should be halted forever, but refusing to carry out the ones where the substantial concerns about the conviction is at least better than the current policy, in use in every state where the death penalty applies, of allowing executions despite doubts about guilt.
Our lack of naiveté proved well founded, and four years later, the Georgia Board ultimately allowed the execution to go forward, despite the persistence of doubts about the case against Troy Davis, and despite calls for the Board to grant clemency from thousands of Georgians, and hundreds of thousands of people around the world, who could so clearly see the problems in the case.
The execution of Troy Davis showed us many things, but one thing it demonstrated most clearly was that the state (of Georgia or any other) cannot be trusted with the power of killing its prisoners. Even if the death penalty wasn’t already in and of itself the ultimate abuse of human rights, it’s too awesome a power for such a flawed, fallible entity.
Efforts to restrain the power by requiring it to be applied fairly have failed as the courts have been stripped of their ability to review; efforts to ensure that the power is meted out without bias or error have fallen pathetically short, and efforts to apply the power without cruelty were doomed from the start, because of course there is no humane way to deliberately kill a human being.
According to our current jurisprudence, actual innocence is no barrier to execution, never mind doubts about guilt.
Other states, however, have done the only sensible thing in the face of such compelling concerns about fairness, bias and error – they have abolished the death penalty.
Two states (Connecticut and Maryland) have repealed capital punishment since Troy Davis was executed. Sentences and public support for the death penalty are down at historic lows. One of the lasting legacies of Troy Davis will be this acceleration of the demise of the death penalty.
But more than a symbol of the abolition movement, Troy Davis was a man. An uncle, a son, a brother. He deserved not only the right not to be executed, but the right to be treated with basic fairness. Yet calls to investigate the handling of the Troy Davis case, to both the Georgia and U.S. Attorneys General, continue to fall on deaf ears.
The troubling way the Troy Davis case was handled, from start to finish, should be investigated for his and for his family’s sake, but also because it is emblematic – and not only of a dysfunctional capital punishment system. Problems with the U.S. criminal justice system go way beyond the death penalty, which is only its most visible, and most litigated, aspect. Bias, unfairness, error, cruelty; these are all hallmarks of the U.S. criminal justice system writ large.
As such, Troy Davis may represent something even bigger. Abolishing the death penalty is essential; the failure of the U.S. system to prevent his execution makes that clear. And maybe abandoning executions will change U.S. attitudes towards criminal justice as a whole, and the current obsession with “toughness” will be replaced with a genuine focus on justice and human rights.
As Maryland’s Governor said on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday this January, when endorsing the end to the death penalty in his state:
“[W]e know that the way forward is always found through greater respect for the human dignity of all.”
To commemorate the anniversary of Troy’s execution, take action and pledge to fight for death penalty abolition.