Troy Davis and the new abolitionists

Among Troy Davis’s last words were “I am innocent.”  

He said them while strapped down on a death chamber gurney Sept. 21 in Georgia’s Jackson State Prison, looking at the family of slain police officer Mark MacPhail.

“It’s a sad day. There’s nothing to rejoice,” said Joan MacPhail-Harris, the widow of the victim.

His mother, Anneliese MacPhail, said, “All the feelings of relief and peace I’ve been waiting for all these years, they will come later. “

One million petitions were delivered to Georgia’s Board of Parole demanding clemency for Davis. Just as many people, or more, rallied, prayed, tweeted, phoned, faxed or Facebooked “I am Troy Davis” messages.

Thousands signed letters of support for clemency for Davis, whose conviction was based on coerced and compromised eyewitnesses. Former President Jimmy Carter, Pope Benedict XVI, former FBI Director William Sessions, conservative and liberal politicians, celebrities and artists were among the signatories. 

“Troy Davis has impacted the world,” his sister Martina Correia said. “They say, ‘I am Troy Davis,’ in languages he can’t speak.”

Hundreds held vigil outside death row, hoping, fasting, protesting and praying for a miracle or some modicum of justice.

None came.

At least not for Troy Anthony Davis.

Yet, despite the tragedy, perhaps a miracle did arise from the despair and tears, the anger and shame. For in those emotions and in that fight to save Davis’s life, a new abolitionist movement was born.

“Troy’s execution, the exceptional unfairness of it, will only hasten the end of the death penalty in the United States,” said NAACP’s Ben Jealous.

The practice of the death penalty in our country is historically rooted in the lynch mob, slavery and Jim Crow. Mob justice was infused with racial hysteria, where bigotry determines guilt and innocence. African Americans and Native Americans were most often the targets.

Perhaps it was the knowledge of this history, or the movements to overcome racism and oppression, that sparked the fight.

Perhaps it was social media and the Internet.

Or perhaps, in a nation which elected its first black president (a death penalty supporter), it was the newly awakened consciousness of the idea that black, white and brown can stand together for justice, and ordinary people from Wisconsin to Egypt can change the world.

Whatever the factors, the birth of a new movement to abolish the death penalty has arisen as Georgia carried out this execution.

“The struggle for justice doesn’t end with me. This struggle is for all the Troy Davises who came before me and all the ones who will come after me,” said Troy Davis, prophetically, on the day of his execution. 

About the death penalty, there are many opinions. The Supreme Court had two: one in 1973 that banned capital punishment as unconstitutional, and later, one in 1976 that allowed it under certain circumstances.

Public support for the death penalty had been relatively high since its reinstatement, swinging upwards to more than 80 percent favoring it.

Political campaigns laced with racial and tough-on-crime hysteria undoubtedly boosted the numbers.

But science and DNA evidence helped put a damper on this. 

DNA evidence used to prove the innocence of death row convicts accelerated since 2000. There have been 273 post-conviction exonerations in the U.S., 206 of them since 2000. Seventeen of the 273 wrongly-convicted had been on death row. Since 1973, 138 people have been freed from death row by DNA and other evidence.*

Polling data indicates nearly half the public supports the sentence of life without parole over the death penalty.

Then came the numerous reports and studies that showed blatant racial, class, regional and political bias in the death penalty’s application. 

Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have now outlawed capital punishment. And more are sure to follow suit. 

Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens said last year he once thought the death penalty could be administered “rationally and fairly.” 

But now, he said, he has concluded, “That personnel changes on the court, coupled with regrettable judicial activism, had created a system of capital punishment that is shot through with racism, skewed toward conviction, infected with politics and tinged with hysteria.”

It doesn’t even deter crime, Stevens noted.

Troy Davis did not go quietly into the night. He and his family inspired millions to stand up and fight for decency and justice. His death gave life to a new abolitionist movement.

Grave questions of guilt or innocence, barbarism or civilization, blunder or repair, injustice or fairness swirl around Georgia’s execution, and they do not go quietly into the night.

Neither do the students who rode buses from Spelman and Morehouse colleges to Jackson, Ga. Nor do the human rights activists throughout the South where 80 percent of executions are held. Nor do the millions of people throughout the U.S. aroused by the questions raised and justice denied in this case.

Meet the new abolitionists.

And we say, “We are Troy Davis.”

More on the death penalty from 

Photo: About 500 marchers gather in downtown Atlanta to walk from Woodruff Park to Ebenezer Baptist Church, the spiritual home of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in support of Georgia death row inmate Troy Davis on Sept. 16. (AP/David Tulis)

*UPDATED Sept 26 to more accurately reflect post-conviction exonerations based on DNA, and former death row inmates freed.



PW Editorial Board
PW Editorial Board

People’s World editorial board: Editor-in-Chief John Wojcik,  Managing Editor C.J. Atkins, Copy Editor Eric A. Gordon, Washington D.C. Bureau Chief Mark Gruenberg, Social Media Editor Chauncey K. Robinson, Senior Editor Roberta Wood, Senior Editor Joe Sims