Death brings cheers these days in America. In the most recent Republican presidential debate in Tampa, Fla., when CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked, hypothetically, if a man who chose to carry no medical insurance, then was stricken with a grave illness, should be left to die, cheers of “Yeah!” filled the hall. When, in the prior debate, Gov. Rick Perry was asked about his enthusiastic use of the death penalty in Texas, the crowd erupted into sustained applause and cheers. The reaction from the audience prompted debate moderator Brian Williams of NBC News to follow up with the question, “What do you make of that dynamic that just happened here, the mention of the execution of 234 people drew applause?”
That “dynamic” is why challenging the death sentence to be carried out against Troy Davis by the state of Georgia on Sept. 21 is so important. Davis has been on Georgia’s death row for close to 20 years after being convicted of killing off-duty police officer Mark MacPhail in Savannah. Since his conviction, seven of the nine nonpolice witnesses have recanted their testimony, alleging police coercion and intimidation in obtaining the testimony. There is no physical evidence linking Davis to the murder.
Last March, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Davis should receive an evidentiary hearing, to make his case for innocence. Several witnesses have identified one of the remaining witnesses who has not recanted, Sylvester “Redd” Coles, as the shooter. U.S. District Judge William T. Moore Jr. refused, on a technicality, to allow the testimony of witnesses who claimed that, after Davis had been convicted, Coles admitted to shooting MacPhail. In his August court order, Moore summarized, “Mr. Davis is not innocent.”
One of the jurors, Brenda Forrest, disagrees. She told CNN in 2009, recalling the trial of Davis, “All of the witnesses—they were able to ID him as the person who actually did it.” Since the seven witnesses recanted, she says: “If I knew then what I know now, Troy Davis would not be on death row. The verdict would be not guilty.”
Troy Davis has three major strikes against him. First, he is an African-American man. Second, he was charged with killing a white police officer. And third, he is in Georgia.
More than a century ago, the legendary muckraking journalist Ida B. Wells risked her life when she began reporting on the epidemic of lynchings in the Deep South. She published “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases” in 1892 and followed up with “The Red Record” in 1895, detailing hundreds of lynchings. She wrote: “In Brooks County, Ga., Dec. 23, while this Christian country was preparing for Christmas celebration, seven Negroes were lynched in twenty-four hours because they refused, or were unable to tell the whereabouts of a colored man named Pike, who killed a white man ... Georgia heads the list of lynching states.”
The planned execution of Davis will not be at the hands of an unruly mob, but in the sterile, fluorescently lit confines of Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Butts County, near the town of Jackson.
The state doesn’t intend to hang Troy Davis from a tree with a rope or a chain, to hang, as Billie Holiday sang, like a strange fruit: “Southern trees bear a strange fruit/Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/Black body swinging in the Southern breeze/Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” The state of Georgia, unless its Board of Pardons and Paroles intervenes, will administer a lethal dose of pentobarbital. Georgia is using this new execution drug because the federal Drug Enforcement Administration seized its supply of sodium thiopental last March, accusing the state of illegally importing the poison.
“This is our justice system at its very worst,” said Ben Jealous, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Amnesty International has called on the State Board of Pardons and Paroles to commute Davis’ sentence. “The Board stayed Davis’ execution in 2007, stating that capital punishment was not an option when doubts about guilt remained,” said Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA. “Since then two more execution dates have come and gone, and there is still little clarity, much less proof, that Davis committed any crime. Amnesty International respectfully asks the Board to commute Davis’ sentence to life and prevent Georgia from making a catastrophic mistake.”
But it’s not just the human rights groups the parole board should listen to. Pope Benedict XVI and Nobel Peace Prize laureates President Jimmy Carter and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, among others, also have called for clemency. Or the board can listen to mobs who cheer for death.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.