Thursday, September 22, 2011

The execution of Troy Davis

Back in the distant day, early in the last century, the NAACP used to hang a huge black banner out the window of its Manhattan offices announcing the latest crime against humanity, breaking news on a case by case basis: A MAN WAS LYNCHED YESTERDAY the banner read.

There are many in America -- from a former president to singers and actors to everyday people on the street -- who'd shout those words at the top of their lungs, if they weren't too busy crying or husbanding their rage in silence and shame.

This is because yesterday at 11:08 P.M. Eastern time, Troy Anthony Davis, Georgia Department of Corrections inmate No. 657378, was put to death at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison by lethal injection, for the August 1989 murder of police Officer Mark MacPhail in Savannah, Ga., despite a mountain of evidence that Davis may have been innocent — and despite the outcry of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Pope Benedict XVI, and former President Jimmy Carter, and millions of people around a world more outraged at the death penalty than we are in America.

"I will grieve for the Davis family because now they're going to understand our pain and our hurt," said MacPhail's widow, Joan MacPhail-Harris, in a telephone interview with CBS News. "My prayers go out to them. I have been praying for them all these years. And I pray there will be some peace along the way for them."

Almost lost in the wall to wall coverage of the Davis execution was the almost simultaneous execution, in Texas, of Lawrence Russell Brewer, convicted in the June 1998 dragging death of James Byrd. The racial components of each case -- in the one, a black man's convicted of killing a white man; in the other it's vice versa -- led some in the blogosphere to see the two executions as effecting some twisted balance in the mathematics of retribution. Blacks and whites each put up a W and a L yesterday, goes their perverse reasoning; sounds like justice.

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But the Brewer case was closer, much closer, to open and shut. The avowed white supremacist admitted a role in Byrd's capture; the victim's blood was all over his clothes when Barnett was captured. The Davis case pivoted entirely on eyewitness accounts. There was no blood, no DNA, no murder weapon. The life of a man was taken in Georgia on the strength of nine people -- seven of them presumed eyewitnesses who either recanted or revised their testimony in the previous 21 years, some alleging police coercion.

We may never know what really transpired in that Burger King parking lot where off-duty Officer Mark MacPhail was shot to death. We do know the MacPhail family has waited a long time for that hypothetical thing called "closure," or that other hypothetical we call "justice." Maybe they got it yesterday night, maybe not.

But one thing can’t be overlooked. Some in the MacPhail family went to the death chamber to personally witness Davis' execution. Implicit in this desire for a formal, official endpoint to the presumed source of their suffering for a quarter-century, whether the MacPhails admit it or not, was an equal desire to hear Davis admit what he was convicted of two decades ago. We've seen this before: a convicted killer hoping to exorcise a lifetime of demons does the full mea culpa at death's door and owns up to the misdeeds that put him in his terminal predicament.

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But it didn't happen like that last night. Jon Lewis, a radio reporter and an eyewitness to Davis' last earthly statements, reported this after the execution:

“Basically, it went very quietly. The MacPhail family and friends sat in the first row. Warden read the order, asked if Troy Davis had anything to say. And Davis lifted his head up, looked at that first row, and made a statement, in which he said—he wanted to talk to the MacPhail family and said that, despite the situation you’re in, he was not the one who did it.

“He said that he was not personally responsible for what happened that night, that he did not have a gun. He said to the family that he was sorry for their loss, but also said that he did not take their son, father, brother. He said to them to dig deeper into this case, to find out the truth.”

If the MacPhails were hoping that Davis would come clean, that he’d admit to what he was convicted of in order to -- what's the phrase? -- "get right with God," they never got that satisfaction.

Troy Davis went to his death proclaiming his innocence, all the way. At a time when there was literally nothing to lose, Troy Davis had nothing to say, beyond that which he’d maintained from the beginning: “I am innocent.” By all appearances, Davis never had to get right with God at the eleventh-plus hour. He'd been right with God all along.

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The MacPhail family will never admit to anything like having any second thoughts on the basis of Davis’ consistent claims of innocence; they will no doubt insist that “justice was done” and maintain that position before the public forever.

"He has had ample time to prove his innocence," MacPhail-Harris said before the execution. "And he is not innocent."

The MacPhails, and the state of Georgia, will assert their allegiance to the justice system, never publicly admitting to any doubt in the outcome of this case, reflecting the obvious vested interest they each have in the outcome. But that lack of a gurneyside confession from Davis, and the consistency of his claim of innocence from start to finish are almost certain, at some point, to awaken that seed of reasonable doubt as to his guilt in the case — a variation of the reasonable doubt Davis never enjoyed for more than 20 years.

Sooner or later, new exculpatory evidence will emerge in this profoundly sad case and be added to that which is already on the record. And Troy Anthony Davis’ final words on earth will whisper in their inner ears. And they’ll ponder, if only for brief fleeting moments, the seemingly impossible: Maybe, just maybe, they took the wrong man.

Image credits: Davis: State of Georgia. Troy Davis protest in Jackson, Ga.: Grant Blankenship/The New York Times.

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