The extraordinary movement to save Troy Davis

By Kung Li

Today, Monday September 19, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles meets to decide whether Troy Davis will live or die.

[Editor's note: On Tuesday, September 20, the board announced its decision to deny clemency for Davis, and after appeals to the Georgia and U.S. Supreme Courts failed, Davis was executed by lethal injection on Wednesday, September 21.]

Davis was sentenced to death for the 1989 murder of Savannah police officer Mark MacPhail. Doubts about his guilt have prompted the likes of Desmond Tutu, former FBI Director William Sessions and -- just hours ago -- Martin Luther King Jr.'s daughter Bernice King to ask the board to grant clemency. Fourteen bankers boxes filled with petitions containing 663,000 signatures were delivered to the board on Thursday; more petitions delivered over the weekend and earlier this morning brought the total number of people asking for clemency up over 800,000.

Doubts about Davis' guilt stem from the fact that there is no physical evidence linking Davis to the shooting. More damning, seven of nine witnesses who pointed to Davis as the shooter during the original trial have since recanted their testimony, some of them saying they were coerced by police investigators determined to secure a conviction against Davis.
A story jointly written by two of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's veteran journalists -- including one who spent two years reviewing thousands of murder convictions and every death penalty conviction since 1982 -- called Troy Davis' fight against his death "the most extraordinary and controversial legal odyssey in the state's history."

It's a crowded field. From 1924, when Georgia switched from death by hanging to death by electrocution, until 1972, when the U.S. Supreme Court in Furman v. Georgia struck down the state's death penalty law as arbitrary and capricious, the state executed 418 people. One factor that was not arbitrary was race: During this period, 80% of the people executed by Georgia were black.
Embarrassed by Furman, the Georgia General Assembly quickly passed a revised death penalty law with modest procedural protections. It was enough to satisfy the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court in 1976 (Gregg v. Georgia) gave its stamp of approval to Georgia's new law, and in so doing reinstated the death penalty.

That both Furman and Gregg originated in Georgia is no coincidence. Georgia's special relationship with capital punishment comes not only from state officials' enthusiastic embrace of the death penalty, but also from the intensity of the homegrown fight against it.

The Southern Center for Human Rights, originally named the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee, set up shop Atlanta in 1983, the first year post-Gregg that Georgia carried out an execution. The next year, Georgia executed two people, then three the next year, then six over the next two years. After that, though, SCHR's strategy of challenging death sentences case by case had an effect, and executions flattened out. SCHR's top attorneys took their experience out across the South, starting capital defense projects in Louisiana, Alabama, and Texas.

Many of those supporting Davis' request for clemency are part of the advocacy community that has matured alongside SCHR. But Davis' case has also galvanized a far larger group of Georgians. Former President and southwest Georgia native Jimmy Carter wrote a letter to the board asking for clemency, as did former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Norman Fletcher. Freedom Rider turned Congressman John Lewis' request for clemency puts him on the same side of the issue as the famously conservative Bob Barr.
Over 10,000 of the signatures sitting in the lobby of the parole board were collected by hand from Savannah and Chatham County, at church services, in grocery store parking lots, and door to door. Thousands more came in from NAACP chapters in rural Georgia. These signatures came in to Amnesty International's Atlanta office in packets of ten or fifteen or so sheets with a dozen signatures per sheet, the effort of gathering them evident in the folds, tears, and stains covering each page.

As the execution date approaches, that effort is translating into an unexpected level of energy.  Organizers for a rally in downtown Atlanta on Friday expected 800 people. To their surprise, 4,000 turned up. Two buses came up from Savannah, another four from North Carolina, and one drove in from Rome in north Georgia. Morehouse and Georgia State University students turned out in force. The marchers walked east down Auburn Avenue to the enormous Ebenezer Baptist Church, which quickly filled to capacity. Marchers unable to get into the church held their own impromptu song and chant circle outside the church.

As with the uprisings in the Middle East, mainstream media has been quick to credit "a social media campaign" and "the digital age" for making Troy Davis an international cause célèbre. That may be so for those who signed online petitions or learned about the case through Facebook friends. But the longstanding legacy of Troy Davis -- whatever the outcome of today's board deliberations -- will be here in Georgia and across the South. Georgia's determination to put Davis to death has inspired T-shirts, placards and chants declaring "I am Troy Davis." Thousands of supporters in France and Italy holding up paper masks of Troy Davis' face to declare "I am Troy Davis" are hoping to save his life. It is an act of solidarity. But when thousands of African Americans in Georgia pull on T-shirts claiming "I am Troy Davis," they are making a declaration that is a lot closer to home. It is personal. It is an act of resistance, and evidence of a movement growing in both numbers and determination.

(Following the parole board's decision, Amnesty International announced that the fight for Davis' life will continue; for more information click here. Meanwhile, the NAACP is calling on the district attorney to intercede on Davis' behalf. Photo by janinsanfran via Flickr.)