On Sept. 21, at 11:08 p.m., Martina Correia leaned forward in her wheelchair on the grounds of the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson, Ga. Though weak from battling illness, she called out to Laura Moye, Amnesty USA’s death penalty abolition campaign director.
“Laura, come here. I want you to meet this young woman. She drove all the way from San Francisco to be here.” Correia asked Moye to be sure to plug the young woman into the abolition work taking place in California.
Neither Correia nor Moye had any way to know that at the exact moment Correia was recruiting the young activist into the movement, her brother, Troy Davis, had just succumbed to death by lethal injection.
The young woman was one of hundreds of thousands of people recruited, directly or indirectly, by Correia to the fight against her brother’s death sentence. Nearly a million wrote letters and signed petitions on behalf of Davis. In the weeks after Georgia set his execution date, thousands took to the streets and marched in Atlanta and thousands more marched around the world. On Sept. 21, over 600 made the journey to Jackson to protest the execution and stand in solidarity with Troy Davis’s family. It was an uproar, utterly unprecedented.
Almost exactly 20 years earlier, on the same prison grounds in Jackson, fewer than a dozen people were on hand for the execution of Warren McCleskey, a black man sentenced to death for killing a white police officer. There was no physical evidence that McCleskey was the shooter, leaving the state’s main evidence a man who testified McCleskey had confessed to him. For years, the state hid the fact that the witness was a police informant, and that the police had illegally created the testimony by placing the informant in McCleskey’s jail cell.
McCleskey the man is little remembered, but one of his appeals that reached the Supreme Court changed legal history. In McCleskey v. Kemp, the U.S. Supreme Court considered statistical evidence that Georgia’s death penalty is carried out in a racially discriminatory manner. The evidence was undisputed, but the Court understood that if a death sentence could be overturned by statistics showing racial disparities, then no part of the criminal justice system would be safe from legal challenge. Racial disparities far more yawning than those surrounding the death penalty exist in arrests, detention and sentencing.
So the Supreme Court created an impossible test: McCleskey must show the racial discrimination was intentional. That is, McCleskey could only prove racial discrimination if the district attorney or trial judge stepped forward and proclaimed that they had acted on the basis of race.
With McCleskey, the Supreme Court decided it would rather tolerate a racist criminal justice system than open the floodgates to legal challenges about the system’s racial disparities.
Troy Davis’s case, fought as hard in the courts as McCleskey’s, exposed another morally questionable judicial preference—for finality over truth. No matter how flawed the process that produces a conviction, the burden shifts to the convicted to prove claims of innocence. It is a standard designed to help the system bury its mistakes—in Troy’s case, quite literally so. The judiciary would rather get it done than get it right.
For the last 30 years, the battle over the death penalty has been contained inside courtrooms and on the pages of legal briefs. The judicial system, asked to judge the foundations of its own house, papered over the problems of racial bias and doubt.
But then something extraordinary happened, as support for Troy Davis grew. These fundamental problems of doubt and racial bias moved outside the confines of the judiciary and shifted—quite abruptly—from being legal questions to personal ones.
Correia is most responsible for making things personal. People were drawn to Troy Davis’s case because she insisted that people connect with her brother not as a convict or a death row inmate, but as a person. The connection between Troy and his supporters was at times literally made through his sister. In 2009, Correia patched Troy through from prison to a conference call with activists from Amnesty International.
“Everything is coming to a head and people are starting to wake up more and more,” Davis said on the call. “This is just the beginning of something … we’re going to win this fight, we’re going to continue to open these eyes, we’re going to continue to open these prison doors, we’re going to continue to hold accountable all those that are in charge of these unjust systems.”
As activists sought out who to hold accountable, it became clear that what Justice John Paul Stevens famously called the “machinery of death” is in fact made up of individual human beings, each with their own moral compass, and so each one morally accountable.
There is Larry Chisolm, the Chatham County district attorney, who put in the request for a death warrant. There is the Superior Court judge named Penny Freesmann who signed it. The man who set the actual date and time of execution is Brian Owens, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Corrections. Five human beings comprise the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Parole, three of whom voted to deny Davis clemency. A group of correctional officers walked Troy to the execution chamber. Prison nurses prepared the IV lines. Carlo Musso, a doctor, collected $18,000 for overseeing the execution. Warden Carl Humphrey ordered over 125 CERT officers to dress out in full riot gear and stand guard so that those inside the prison could carry out the killing.
But the most significant shift into the personal can be understood through the blue Amnesty USA t-shirts that Troy supporters have been wearing for years, with white letters spelling, “I Am Troy Davis.”
Initially, the t-shirts were a sign of solidarity with the plight of a possibly innocent man on death row. But many are now wearing them with a sense of anger and identification that is far wider and deeper than the issue of Davis’s innocence. Davis’s execution, the events leading up to it and the feelings growing out of it have mobilized those who have been targeted and under attack by our criminal justice apparatus, especially (but not only) young black men, particularly in the South, and their mothers, sisters, parents and grandparents. What was once primarily a badge of solidarity is now, for many, a declaration of identity.
These young black and brown men and women are taking to heart James Baldwin’s plea in “An Open Letter to My Sister, Angela Y. Davis” when she was awaiting trial: “we must fight for your life as though it were our own—which it is—and render impassable with our bodies the corridor to the gas chamber. For, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.”
Angela Davis was acquitted, and years later in an essay advocating the abolition of not only the death penalty but the entire prison industrial complex, wrote that “we are fighting the same battles over and over again, but in doing so in community, we are ever enlarging, ever expanding our notion of freedom.”
It is a sentiment echoed by Troy Davis, who repeatedly stressed that “we need to continue to stand together and educate each other and don’t give up the fight.”
The fight is not metaphorical. There are people determined to end capital punishment, and there are people determined to use it. The latest battle took place Sept. 21, 2011, in Jackson, Ga. Inside, hundreds of people carried out their parts in the script for killing Troy Davis, while outside, hundreds more—including four busloads of students from Armstrong, Savannah State, Morehouse, Spelman and Atlanta University—stood, prayed, and raged in opposition.
One of the people in the crowd at Jackson that night was Cara McCleskey, Warren McCleskey’s now adult daughter. Twenty legal appeals and a small army of lawyers did not save her father’s life. The million people who rallied behind Troy did not save his. The battles against the death penalty and against the racism of our criminal justice system will, as Angela Davis predicted, continue to be fought over and over again.
But something profound has shifted. Millions have had their eyes opened due to Troy Davis. For others, he made visible what they already knew, through personal experience, about the racism embedded in the criminal justice system. Thousands of young, African American men and women in the South are declaring “I am Troy Davis” as if their lives depend on it. We are standing together in a moment of expansion, which, if seized with the love and fury that surrounded the Davis family in Jackson last week, could bring us all closer to free.