San Francisco – On September 21, shortly before 11 pm, the state government of Georgia injected poison into the veins of an African American, Troy Davis. The murder was completed at 11:08 pm.
The killing had been scheduled for 7 pm. I was watching a live broadcast of the protest rally and vigil outside the prison where the execution took place when a sudden cheer swept through the largely black crowd. The Supreme Court had stopped the murder, and it appeared that the campaign to save Davis’ life had won a victory.
The live broadcast was a special edition of Democracy Now! Host Amy Goodman was interviewing the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People president, Benjamin Jealous, and Amnesty International director Larry Cox when the cheer went up. Both were delirious with joy at the apparent victory.
But this was not the case. The robed reactionaries on the Supreme Court had merely postponed the event on a technicality, and a few hours later refused to intervene and so allowed the travesty of justice to proceed.
Davis had been on death row for 22 years. His family, led by his older sister, had waged a campaign during this time that grew into a major national and international effort. The NAACP and Amnesty International came to the fore on Davis’ behalf in recent years.
The Georgia State Board of Pardons and Parole had earlier cleared the way for the execution, in spite of more than 630,000 petitions sent to the board asking for clemency. Those signing the petition included 51 members of Congress, former Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, former President Jimmy Carter and even William Sessions the pro-death-penalty former head of the FBI.
The board’s decision was taken by a surprisingly close vote, three to two. This gave NAACP lawyers hope when they made a last-ditch appeal to the Supreme Court. Bourgeois politics has moved sharply to the right in recent years, and the Supreme Court is part of that process. To quote a phrase from the rock opera Evita, the court is “slightly to the right of Attila the Hun”. Benjamin Jealous also asked President Obama for a reprieve, to no avail.
Speaking of the legal lynching, the Rev. Raphael Warnock of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, said, “It harkens back to some ugly days in the history of this state”. Georgia was the scene of many of the thousands of lynchings of black men in the Jim Crow South. Ebenezer became famous during the civil rights battles because of its pastor at the time, Martin Luther King, Jr.
The courts in Georgia have imposed the death penalty 70% of the time in cases where a black defendant is charged with killing a white person, and only 15% of the time when a white defendant was accused of killing a black.
The death penalty is barbaric in any case, and is racially skewed in application in the United States. But Troy Davis’ murder is especially egregious because he was innocent, like the 17 death row inmates who were exonerated in recent years because of the efforts of the Innocence Project. Those men were shown to be innocent by DNA evidence, in cases where the justice system railroaded them into convictions and the death penalty.
Davis was convicted in the 1989 shooting death of a white police officer. But as the New York Times editorialised the day before the legal lynching, “The Georgia pardon and parole board’s refusal to grant him clemency is appalling in light of developments after his conviction: reports about police misconduct, the recantation of testimony by a string of eyewitnesses and reports from other witnesses that another person had committed the crime …
“The grievous errors in the Davis case were numerous, and many arose out of eyewitness identification. The Savanna [Georgia] police contaminated the memories of four witnesses by re-enacting the crime with them present so that their individual perceptions were turned into a group one. The police showed some of the witnesses Mr. Davis’ photograph even before the lineup. His lineup picture was set apart [from the other photos in the lineup] by a different background. The lineup was also administered by a police officer involved in the investigation, increasing the potential for influencing the witnesses.
“In the decades since the Davis trial, science-based research has shown how unreliable and easily manipulated witness identification can be. Studies of the hundreds of felony cases overturned because of DNA evidence have found that misidentifications accounted for between 75 percent and 85 percent of the wrongful convictions. The Davis case offers egregious examples of this kind of error. Under proper practices, no one should know who the suspect is, including the officer administering a lineup …
“Seven of the nine witnesses against Mr. Davis recanted after trial. Six said the police threatened them if they did not identify Mr. Davis. The man who first told the police that Mr. Davis was the shooter later confessed to the crime. There are other reasons to doubt Mr. Davis’ guilt: There was no physical evidence linking him to the crime introduced at trial, and new ballistic evidence broke the link between him and a previous shooting that provided the motive for his conviction.”
Troy Davis did not own a gun. The man who first pointed the finger at Davis, and was one of the two witnesses of the nine who didn’t recant, and who later bragged that he was the real murderer, did own a gun of the same type that killed the officer.
The case against Troy Davis is so obviously a frame-up that, had he been granted clemency, it is very likely that the campaign to overturn his conviction would have been victorious in time. That’s the outcome this vicious, racist “law and order” system wanted to block at all costs, so they murdered him.
Across the country and around the world, Davis’ supporters wore blue T-shirts in the weeks leading up to the execution, with the words, “I Am Troy Davis”. And indeed we all are.