September 20, 2011
If the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles has its way, Troy Anthony Davis will be killed by lethal injection at 7 pm on September 21. His body will be carried out of the maximum-security prison in Jackson, the word “homicide” printed on his death certificate—the thirty-fourth US prisoner put to death this year.
The killing of Troy Davis would mark a devastating end to a case that inspired a global mobilization against the death penalty. Davis, 42, has faced execution four times in the past four years for a 1989 murder in Savannah, despite serious doubts about his guilt. His conviction hinged on nine witnesses—no physical evidence linked him to the crime—seven of whom later recanted their testimony. Some described being coerced by police. Others point to a different man—the eighth witness, who first implicated Davis—as the real killer. “If I knew then what I know now,” juror Brenda Forrest said in 2009, “Troy Davis would not be on death row.”
Forrest was one of several people who met with members of the pardons board on September 19 to plead for Davis’s life. Others included Davis’s nephew De’Juan, who grew up visiting his uncle on death row and whose mother, Davis’s sister Martina Correia, has been his most tireless defender, while also battling breast cancer. Davis’s more high-profile supporters range from the pope to former FBI director William Sessions, who wrote recently, “It is for cases like this that executive clemency exists.”
But Davis is a black man convicted of killing a white police officer—and in Southern and Northern states alike, this fact alone will trump all others. “Race is everything in this case,” Georgia Congressman John Lewis declared in September 2008, on a day when Davis came within two hours of lethal injection.
Early in September, as hundreds of thousands of petitions flooded the Board of Pardons and Paroles on Davis’s behalf, a lesser-known case suddenly caught the country’s attention. Duane Buck was scheduled to die in Texas on September 15. Unlike Davis, his guilt was not in question: he admitted to killing two people in a drug-fueled rage. But, like Davis, he was sent to death row at least in part for the color of his skin. A state psychologist told jurors that Buck posed “future dangerousness” because he is black. Buck had already eaten his last meal when the US Supreme Court called to say that his life would be spared—for now.
The persistence of such rituals in 2011 is reason enough to question the death penalty. But the racism that underpins it—along with the 138 innocent people released from death row—is the hallmark of a system that Americans increasingly reject as intolerable. This year Illinois, where a Republican governor once commuted 167 death sentences citing doubts over “the fairness of the death penalty system as a whole,” became the fourth state in five years to abolish it. Last year a comprehensive study found that 61 percent of registered voters favored alternatives to executions—and in death penalty states a majority of voters said that an anti–death penalty stance would not deter them from voting for a candidate;24 percent said such a candidate would be more likely to get their vote.
Such evolving standards of decency were nowhere on display at the Reagan Library when the Republican faithful cheered Governor Rick Perry’s unprecedented execution record—234 then, 235 now—thanks to the bloodlust of a rabid Republican base. But without a strong alternative—a full-throated condemnation of the death machinery that still operates across the country—can opponents really claim the moral high ground?
For years Democratic politicians, whose party once opposed the death penalty, have embraced it as a suitable punishment for the “worst of the worst.” President Bill Clinton, who famously attended the execution of a mentally disabled man while on the campaign trail in 1992, went on to sign the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which greased the wheels of this death machinery by curtailing prisoners’ rights to appeal their sentences. Former Georgia Republican Bob Barr, who helped write that law ostensibly to curb “abusive delays in capital cases,” has since decried its effect—specifically that it has prevented “claims of actual innocence like Troy Davis’s” from being heard in court.
In practice, any support for the death penalty (or attempts to perfect it) amount to an acceptance of a vicious system that cannot be separated from Rick Perry’s Texas—and which is, in fact, exemplified by it. It’s a system that thrives on racism, that condemns the innocent to die. There will not be justice for Troy Davis. But his case has reawakened Americans to a relic of injustice that must be abolished once and for all.