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Monday, April 16, 2012

Some (Lots of) Thoughts on the Death Penalty: Part 2 of 2. Troy Davis, Steve Earle and How it Will End

                        Troy Davis

This is part 2 of 2.  If you haven't read the first part you can read it here 

The convenient fiction believed by many casual supporters of the death penalty that a person would not be executed in America in the 21st century if there were serious doubts about his or her guilt was erased this past year by the case of Troy Davis. Before I get started on the Troy Davis case I must note that I was involved with the case for five years and ran Troy’s Facebook group for a time so I cannot be impartial in describing what happened and therefore I won’t try.  Although I like millions of others believe Davis was innocent, far more important to me in my initial decision to get involved with the case was the fact that Troy was convicted with no physical evidence and several members of the jury that had convicted him questioned their decision after hearing suppressed evidence and changed testimony that leaked out in the years after his trial. While Troy had to be convicted by evidence which could convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt, when the very jury that convicted him expressed doubts in light of new facts Troy’s appeal process required him to prove his innocence beyond a reasonable doubt.  Ultimately, as Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia famously opined in 2009, to execute Davis it did not matter whether Davis was really innocent or not but what counted was whether he could prove his innocence in order to overturn his original conviction.  Despite winning over a majority of Americans and becoming the most dramatic death penalty cause-célèbre in history, he was unable to prove his innocence beyond a reasonable doubt in court and as such was executed.  

About a year before the Davis case became fairly well known (it WAS well known among anti-death penalty activists and as one I learned of it probably during my sophomore year of high school) I took a petition around my neighborhood and shot off some emails.  After Troy’s first execution date came and went his case “went viral” online among the wider public and prominent individuals and organizations as diverse as the Pope, Amnesty International, Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter and even prominent advocates for the death penalty like Bob Barr and William Sessions (former head of the FBI) argued against Davis’s execution on the grounds that there was simply too much doubt in the case.  Barr in particular was uncomfortable that the Georgia Supreme Court had decided in March of 2008 to believe the original testimony of witnesses who had identified Davis as the shooter after the very same witnesses testified to the court eighteen years later that their original testimony had not been accurate and in several cases that they had been pressured by the police to identity Troy as the shooter.

Troy Davis was sentenced to die a second time on September 24th 2008 and I remember the night very well as I was violently ill with food poisoning and had an exam to take first thing in the morning.  I followed local Georgia news-website reports that Troy was being taken to the death chamber and figured that the matter was over. (Although there are telephones in death-chambers in case the governor or the Supreme Court calls, it almost never happens.) As there was no TV coverage to follow I decided not to participate in the death-watch from afar and went to sleep.  After returning from my exam the following morning my roommate informed me that Troy was not only still alive but that his dramatic last minute stay of execution had resulted in enormous media coverage (which had been sorely lacking in the run-up to that execution date) and when I turned on the TV Troy’s sister Martina Correia was being interviewed.  That was the moment when Troy’s case went from being well-known among death penalty opponents and people who closely follow the criminal justice system to becoming a fixture of the national consciousness for the next three years.  

I became much more active with the case.  I called local rabbis, pastors, priests, Imams and other religious figures to help along a petition-drive aimed at members of the clergy.  I phoned the relevant government offices in Georgia every week and helped organize a vigil at Rutgers and advised anti-death penalty activists I was still in touch with at Central High School in Philadelphia (my alma-mater).  Despite my interest in the case, however, I wasn’t planning on becoming more involved with it.  As fate would have it though, the interconnectedness of today’s social media and political instability halfway across the globe would see me become much more directly involved. 

In July of 2009 the Chinese government severely suppressed the protests of Uyghur activists in China’s western provinces who wanted greater political and cultural autonomy.  Widespread rioting began and communal clashes between Han Chinese and Uyghurs in the Uyghur’s regional capital followed by anti-Uyghur pogroms in majority Han Chinese areas left hundreds dead.  In the middle of this bloodshed Uyghur activists as well as cyber-activists throughout the Muslim world began a campaign targeting websites belonging to the Chinese government.  Once the Chinese government gained the upper hand and was able to effectively repel these attacks, some of the online pro-Uyghur forces began to hijack the websites of all sorts of western liberal groups, among them Troy Davis’s Facebook group.  After seeing that Troy’s group had been hijacked and that hundreds of people were leaving due to the constant Uyghur related spamming (much of it in the Uyghur language as well as Chinese), I began checking the group every few hours to see if the new-administrators would abandon it.  And luckily enough, they did, giving me the opportunity to become the group’s new (and sole) administrator. Since I had control of Troy’s Facebook group, I ended up talking to some of the inner-circle working on the case and learned much more about Troy and his family. I soon turned over control to Amnesty International and others working with Troy but remained on as an administrator and stayed in contact with some of the people closest to Troy.  

Despite being behind bars for more than half his life, I learned from Troy’s supporters and his sister Martina that he had managed to play a profound role in helping to raise his nephew De’Jaun.  American society likes to think of those on death-row or in prison for life as being in limbo, or of being almost dead, hermetically sealed-off from the rest of society.  But prisoners who chose to participate in their family’s lives play just as great of a role as those on the outside.  As you can read in this heartbreaking but inspiring article,  Martina made sure that her brother was involved in her son’s life from day one and Troy served as a father figure to him.  The tenuous arrangement became even more poignant when De’Juan was six and Martina was diagnosed with stage-four breast cancer and given just six months to live. A single mother raising a young son and singly-handily spearheading a campaign to get her brother off death row, Martina now found herself fighting for her own life as well. Martina decided that if she wouldn’t be able to be there for her son she wanted to make sure that her brother would be.  Some eight years after her cancer diagnosis I spoke to Martina Correia on the phone for the first time.  Initially it was a pretty mundane conversation.  I retold the odd circumstances by which I had ended up in control of her brother’s Facebook group and what I had been doing on the case and asked if there was more that I could be doing.  Martina then asked me what I knew about her brother aside from the particulars of his murder conviction and she spoke to me about her son and herself and the role that Troy played in their lives.  

You often read about people being “inspiring,” “amazing” and “stunning” because those words are thrown around too often.  But Martina really was all of those things and more.  From only three fairly short telephone conversations with her spread over half a year I can honestly say that she was the single most extraordinary person I’ve ever spoken to.  There was a graceful eloquence combined with an uncompromising fighting spirit to her that cannot be put into words.  Martina was a force of nature but she was also incredibly humble and caring.  The second time I spoke to her she asked me what I was doing in school and I mentioned that I was cramming for a bunch of tests.  When I spoke to her nearly two months later the first thing she asked me was how my exams had gone.  Little could I have imagined from the strong voice speaking to me from the other end of the line that her cancer had returned with a vengeance.  She died on December 1st, 2 months after her brother’s execution.  Here is a portion of an interview with her and her son. 

I learned of the Troy Davis case because of my opposition to the death penalty in general but became particularly committed to it because of Martina and her family.  I believe that it is always wrong for governments to execute their citizens and I think it is doubly wrong when there is a good chance that someone being executed is innocent.  But there is something particularly evil about removing someone from this world who is contributing to our society by helping to raise a child.  How does that prevent crime?  Whom does it help? Even for those who have killed, what moral does it teach to kill someone like Stanley Williams who try to atone for their crimes behind bars?  Where is the place for mercy and redemption in our society? 

As Martina’s health failed and Troy’s final execution date neared the case slowly became issue number one on the national agenda.  The simple primary message that Martina had spread about her brother’s case for years, that there was simply too much doubt for him to be executed, began to resonate far and wide.  I have followed the run-ups to dozens of executions and have never seen anything like it.  Although the mainstream media largely ignored the case while Troy was still going through his appeals, by the week of his execution the case was all over the television. First to cover it was left-leaning MSNBC. Then CNN and FOX News and finally the nightly evening news broadcasts at 6:30 on CBS, ABC and NBC were all wall to wall coverage.  I saw signs in the windows of random businesses in Amherst and in Philadelphia reading “save Troy” and “we’re all Troy Davis.” I heard an old man explaining to his wife on the train that he thought the death penalty was morally right but that if we as a society kill someone whose guilt we cannot agree upon than we are not mature enough to continue the institution.  The man’s wife noted that she felt the death penalty was always wrong and with no forewarning the entire train-car began debating the Troy Davis case and the death penalty itself.  The fact that the death penalty itself was even being widely discussed, let alone its existence critiqued, scared some of the death penalty’s strongest supporters.  A man representing a pro-death penalty lobby on Fox News said that it ultimately didn’t matter whether Troy Davis was innocent or not because too many people questioned his guilt for him to be executed.  The man wasn’t concerned about Troy but rather the damage that his execution might do to the institution of capital punishment itself.   And for a moment it looked like the misgivings over this case might have been able to sink the death-penalty altogether.  Major reporters such as David Gregory who do not primarily cover judicial issues took to Twitter to express their concern. On the evening Troy would die, I turned on MTV hoping to get a minute’s break from the death-watch during the three hour delay when the Supreme Court temporarily stayed his execution only to see that they had preempted regular programming to cover the story and the reactions of musicians to it.  

I have long been of the opinion that the greatest obstacle to eliminating the death penalty is the fact that it is rarely discussed.  There are many reasons for this.  An interesting one that is often overlooked is that like all topics that involve death people are uncomfortable discussing it because they are at some level unwilling to discuss death itself as they do not wish to be reminded of their own mortality.  I had hoped that the Troy Davis case would break through and put the death penalty squarely into the mainstream discussion for the long-term. It didn’t but the case led many people to become anti-death penalty activists.  If anything that will be Martina and Troy’s greatest legacy.  

A few weeks after Troy’s execution a friend told me that he felt guilty about not having done anything more than having signed a petition for Troy and asked me who else was on death row whom I felt was innocent whose case he could help publicize.  I responded that if he wanted to get involved in anti-death penalty activism it shouldn’t matter who on death row is innocent because when a government as a representative of the people executes a person it means that we are ultimately all guilty of murder.  My friend felt that my argument was too melodramatic but agreed that the death penalty was wrong in all cases.  Despite this, he said that he’d only feel comfortable volunteering his time to help someone he believed wasn’t a murderer.  The same debate was touched on brilliantly by MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell the day after Troy’s death.  You can watch it here, it speaks for itself.   

Dick Gregory, it should be noted, did skip Troy’s execution to protest the execution of Lawrence Russell Brewer, one of the three men who committed the vilest and most disturbing racially motivated hate crime of the 1990s.  Gregory, however, also spoke out constantly about the Troy Davis case and gave one of the eulogies at Troy’s funeral.  That said, O’Donnell’s point in highlighting Gregory’s skipping of Troy’s execution is dead-on as Gregory certainly knew that he would be the only prominent person protesting Brewer’s execution. And so by protesting the execution of a man who hated him just for the color of his skin, Gregory demonstrated the power of mercy more than anyone else that night except for Troy himself.  Here are Troy Davis's final words.  I will let them attest to his character and the type of man we as a society felt compelled to kill.  

A Voice of Protest: The Music of Steve Earle

Because the death penalty is so rarely discussed soberly in America it’s rare to see critical portrayals of it in art.  One person who breaks the mold and often tackles it in his work is the singer, actor and political activist Steve Earle.  Earle is perhaps most well known to my friends as “Bubble’s” sponsor on The Wire but he is also one of America’s most interesting contemporary songwriters. Earle is almost unique among figures in American public life because he like me promotes the view that the death penalty is murder perpetrated by an entire society. Earle got his start in country music and his 1990 song “Billy Austin” is a classic country murder-ballad with the unique twist that it is an anti-death penalty song (for the long tradition of murder ballads in country music see here and here).  The haunting song’s final verse ends with the song’s anti-hero and admitted murderer Billy Austin asking the executioner “can you pull that switch yourself sir with a sure and steady hand/could you still tell yourself sir that you’re better than I am.”   You can see the music video here.  

The song, airing on country stations must have been somewhat of a shock politically when it came out considering post-1970s country music’s near universal association with the political right. Even so, the song remains popular and judging from the comments on Youtube even some people who support the death penalty are impressed by Earle’s virtuoso storytelling.  

Another classic Steve Earle song that tackles the death penalty is “Ellis Unit One,” which was used in the film “Dead Man Walking” about the life of Sister Helen Prejean, the nation’s most prominent anti-death penalty activist.  While “Billy Austin” is from the perspective of a murderer, “Ellis Unit One” is from the perspective of a death-row prison guard and reveals the emotional tool that the work takes on him.  

A more personal song Earle wrote about the death penalty is “Over Yonder,” a song inspired by his relationship with Jonathan Wayne Nobles with whom he exchanged letters and whose execution he witnessed at Nobles’ request in 1998.   Earle explains his opposition to the death penalty as he introduces the song.  

When Will It End?

Several people have asked me recently if and when I think the death penalty will be abolished in the United States. I’m certain that it is a matter of when and not if but it could take a very long time yet and I don’t know for sure by which mechanism it will end. It took constant campaigning for decades for the death penalty for people who committed their crimes as minors (under 18) to be done away with. And in that case it wasn’t public opinion but rather the court decision of Rooper V. Simmons (2005) that brought it about. Public opinion remains divided on the issue, despite the fact that in 2005 other than the USA Saudi Arabia and Iran were the only countries in the world killing people for crimes committed as minors. And it was only three years earlier that the Supreme Court banned executing those determined to have an IQ below seventy. Forty-four such people were executed in the US between 1984 and 2002 alone. People convicted of crimes other than murder and treason were only finally spared the death-penalty in 1964 (when a very unlucky James Couburn was executed for robbing a store at gunpoint even though he never fired a shot). All of these milestones in curtailing the death penalty in my country came long after they had been passed in every other modern industrialized nation. So it’s not a surprise that the death penalty itself should hang around longer in America than it should. What does surprise many people is when I tell them that what will probably eventually end the death penalty in America is controversy over how it should be administered and how much pain and suffering the person being killed feels. Although death by hanging, electrocution, firing squad and gas chamber are all on the books in at least one state, nearly every execution in the US is now conducted by means of a lethal injection (there was one death by firing squad and one by electrocution in 2010, the last hanging was in 1996.) Lethal injection is a relatively new technique, it was first performed only in 1982 but it soon became the dominant form of execution because it appeared to be painless and courts starting in the 1970s began to demand that executions not be “cruel and unusual punishment”. I say “appeared to be painless” because the drugs used today in most states are almost certainly quite painful; it’s just that nobody notices as the person is paralyzed when they are killed. This combined with the fact that the procedure is not performed by doctors because their professional associations won’t allow them to participate in executions and the drugs are often dosed and administered by people who are completely unqualified and paid in cash (to protect their anonymity) will probably be what eventually dooms the death penalty. Being hung, gassed or electrocuted is clearly painful and most people object to firing squads because they strike a majority of Americans as being vengeful or uncivilized (being shot through the heart is by far the least painful method of the bunch). So unless we decide to become disturbingly imaginative that pretty much leaves only lethal injection. And as such it will probably be the painfulness of lethal injection and not the moral bankruptcy of killing people to show that killing is wrong that will eventually end the death penalty in America. 

As for me personally, I will be happy when the death penalty ends in this country no matter what. But it would be especially nice if we don’t end the death penalty just because we cannot decide on the most civilized way of killing people but rather if we end the death penalty because we decide as a country that civilized societies don’t kill their own citizens. I’m not too optimistic that that is how it will be ended but perhaps if enough of you read this and join us, the anti-death penalty activists, you can prove me wrong. Anyone out there willing to try? Anyone? Lives are on the line. 

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