Troy Davis: The Human Price of the Death Penalty

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It was September 21, 2011. I stood on the grounds of the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison, holding Troy Davis’s younger sister on one side and his teen-aged nephew on the other, with other supporters wrapping us all in a tight circle of prayer, as we waited in agonizing tension to learn whether Troy Anthony Davis would be killed by the state of Georgia that night.
He was.

Troy Davis protest

Protesters take part in a day of action for Troy Davis. Credit: World Coalition Against the Death Penalty.

Troy Davis, an African American man, had been convicted and sentenced to death for the 1989 murder of white off-duty police officer Mark MacPhail in Savannah, GA. His conviction was based almost entirely on testimonies from eyewitnesses and jailhouse informants, the vast majority of whom later recanted or changed their testimony, many stating that police had coerced them to initially implicate Troy. Others stepped forward to identify another perpetrator. Yet, despite a growing mountain of evidence pointing to Troy’s innocence, and nearly a million people worldwide calling for clemency, Troy Davis was executed with a three-drug lethal injection cocktail. The time of death was 11:08pm.
Troy’s execution and the by-turns-heart-breaking, by-turns-inspiring journey that led to it are documented in my new book, I Am Troy Davis. I Am Troy Davis is Troy’s story, and that of the Davis family, primarily Troy’s older sister Martina Davis-Correia, who was Troy’s fiercest advocate and with whom I co-authored the book. From Troy’s childhood in racially charged Savannah; to the night of Officer MacPhail’s murder; to the man-hunt for Troy which ended when he turned himself in, believing if he told the truth that everything would be alright; to the subsequent two-decade fight waged by Martina to prove his innocence, who was simultaneously fighting to survive an aggressive form of breast cancer; I Am Troy Davis takes us inside a broken criminal justice system where life and death hang in the balance, and where finality is too often prioritized over fairness.
While on book tour with Troy’s family, I have been asked how I came to be involved in Troy’s and the Davis’s story. Though the specifics of my answer include learning about Troy’s case after he survived his first execution date in 2007, and a subsequent correspondence that led to a close friendship, the deeper response is rooted in the years I was immersed in the Reform Jewish youth movement. For as far back as I can remember myself, I was drawn to Judaism’s focus on social action. My understanding of injustice was interpreted through the lens of Tikkun Olam, a commitment to repair the world. Among my strongest memories from my teenaged years are marching with fellow youth group members against apartheid in South Africa, and boycotting Nestle over the company’s unethical marketing of baby formula in impoverished nations. Simply put: I equated Judaism with taking action for social justice. My youth group’s social action projects were the training ground which led me in adulthood to Israeli/Palestinian peace work, then to human rights documentation and activism in Israel/Palestine, Sudan, Bahrain, and beyond; it is also what propelled me to stand with the Davis family during their struggle for Troy. The commitment to human rights that was nurtured in Jewish youth group now compels me to work to abolish the death penalty.
I believe that capital punishment is one of the critical social justice issues in our country today, and is, in many ways, the sharp edge of a broken criminal justice system. With 144 convicted death row inmates exonerated to date, an increasing awareness of how race, poverty and geography determine who is sent to death row, and a growing number of states repealing death penalty laws or imposing execution moratoriums, it has become clear that people are fundamentally questioning the draconian punishment and its biased and arbitrary application.
book coverThrough the intimate telling of one family’s story, I Am Troy Davis is intended to widen and deepen the conversation about capital punishment, and provoke discussion about the impact that these state-sanctioned killings leave on scores of human lives. The concentric circles of those personally affected who have expressed opposition to the death penalty may be surprising to some. I’ve had the opportunity to get to know many members of organizations such as Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation and Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, who expressed how the death penalty process, rather than providing the elusive closure so sought-after, only served to prolong their anguish. Those who have been tasked with carrying out executions have also spoken out against the practice. Frank Thompson, a retired Superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary, spoke powerfully at our recent I Am Troy Davis event in Portland, describing how executing prisoners emotionally harmed him and his staff, leading him to now ardently oppose the death penalty and describing it as failed public policy. The night of Troy’s execution, in fact, six former wardens of death row institutions appealed for clemency for Troy, partially on the basis of the trauma that those participating in the execution might experience. And, as evidenced by the recent horrific botched execution in Oklahoma, that trauma can extend to media and other witnesses as well.
And, of course, there is the suffering caused to the condemned prisoner and those who love him/her – for even in the cases where the guilt of the prisoner is not in question, his/her family is innocent. As Bill Babbitt (whose brother Manny was executed) said, “The death penalty compounds the tragedy of murder by harming another set of families.”
Standing with Troy’s family the night their brother and uncle was killed, I witnessed that harm first hand. Though we did not see Troy being strapped onto the gurney or the needles being injected into his veins, nor did we hear Troy speak his final words, or draw his final breath, the violence of what took place in the execution chamber was done not only to Troy, but to the entire Davis family, and was experienced at some level by all of us who stood with them in protest and in prayer.
My deepest hope is that I Am Troy Davis will reveal the extent to which our justice system is broken and will prompt readers to reflect on the human cost of Troy’s execution, and all executions.
May the legacy of Troy Davis inspire all who are committed to Tikkun Olam (in all its manifestations, faith-based or otherwise) to commit themselves to ensuring that no more lives be taken in the name of justice.

For more information about how to participate in the I Am Troy Davis Community Book Club, marking the 3rd year anniversary of Troy’s execution, click here.
Jen Marlowe is an award-winning author, documentary filmmaker and human rights activist. Her books include I Am Troy Davis, The Hour of Sunlight: One Palestinian’s Journey From Prisoner to Peacemaker and Darfur Diaries: Stories of Survival. Her films include One Family in Gaza, Rebuilding Hope: Sudan’s Lost Boys Return Home, and Darfur Diaries: Message from Home. She is the founder of donkeysaddle projects. You can follower her on Twitter at @donkeysaddleorg, or via her blog, View from the donkey’s saddle.