One wonders how many times this scenario has played out in the United States. Like a classic crime movie, the details go something like this: A group of young men, usually African-American, get involved in an activity of questionable legality. A police officer (often off-duty) intervenes. Weapons are drawn by the officer and someone else. The officer ends up dead. One of the young men is accused of the crime even though the evidence (if there is any) offers no clear link between the accused and the crime. Prosecutors rely on witnesses with minimal credibility to get a conviction. The accused young man is then sentenced to death. While he sits on death row, questions about the prosecution and conviction begin to appear in the press. The prosecution conspires with the judicial system to keep their conviction intact, refusing any motions for retrial based on new evidence. The convicted man grows old in prison, facing multiple execution dates that are only stayed by appeals that never lead to a new trial.
This is the case of Troy Davis in one paragraph. The bulk of the prosecutor’s evidence presented at Davis 1991 trial in the murder of an off-duty policeman in Georgia was based primarily on that of prosecution witnesses who later recanted their testimony. In addition, most of them have claimed repeatedly that they were pressured by police to point to Davis as the perpetrator. No murder weapon was ever found and no physical evidence linked him to the crime. One of the two main witnesses who has not recanted was the original suspect in the crime.
Despite a bulk of new evidence, the state of Georgia has refused to grant a new trial. As recently as April 16th, 2009, Davis’ appeal for a new trial was rejected by a federal appeals court in a 2-1 decision. The dissenting judge was unsparing in her criticism of the Georgia’s legal case and his death sentence. She wrote: “To execute Davis, in the face of a significant amount of proffered evidence that may establish his actual innocence, is unconscionable and unconstitutional.” Yet, the execution of Troy Davis looms in the distance.
Like almost every other case of this nature, the fundamental action that has kept Davis alive is a popular movement that spans the globe. From the streets of Atlanta to the chambers of the European Parliament, thousands have called for Davis’s death sentence to be commuted, with many demanding a new trial based on the new evidence. I recently communicated with Marlene Martin, an organizer for the National Campaign to End the Death Penalty–one of the organizations spearheading the campaign around Troy. When I asked her about the Global Day of Action for Troy Davis on May 19th, she wrote me this:
The coming global day of Action for Troy Davis on May 19th–which also happens to be Malcolm X’s birthday–is really important. Troy Davis is alive today in spite of our legal system, not because of it. The fact that he hasn’t ever been allowed to present new and compelling evidence of his innocence to a jury–and could be executed without ever having the opportunity to do so–is mind-boggling.
The state of Georgia has already tried three times to kill Troy. They would rather kill him than admit wrongdoing. But they have been stopped in their tracks each and every time by the movement outside the courthouse, spearheaded by Troy’s sister Martina Correia. As a result of her efforts, and Amnesty International and many other organizations coming together to fight for Troy, people around the country and around the world know about his case. I get e-mails from all over — England, Germany, France, New Zealand Canada–all people that support Troy.
One thing that’s clear in this fight is we can’t rely on the courts. We need to build for the day of action to be as big as it can be, and to keep organizing. Troy represents many, many others who are in prison today–too poor to afford good representation at trial, and a person of color.
Also at issue in this case is the entire question of the death penalty. The United States is one of the few nations in the so-called free world that continues to practice this barbaric form of justice. In addition, it also ranks near the top among nations that do execute some of their criminals. Add to that the well-documented racial disparity in these executions, especially when looking at the numbers of whites executed for killing blacks versus the number of blacks executed for killing whites and those executions seem even more barbaric. When one considers this, it becomes essential to challenge not only the execution of Troy Davis, but the political system that supports the practice of state-sanctioned murder. This challenge becomes even more necessary when that system also tortures those it has arrested in its “war on terror” and imprisons them indefinitely without trial. A land with such a system is closer to a police state than the land of the free. Unless those who live within its borders resist these authoritarian policies, there may come a time when such resistance will find them subject to them.
Not only is the movement to commute Troy Davis’ execution and get him a new trial an effort to save a man’s life, it is also part of an effort to prevent an increasingly authoritarian nation from becoming even more so. Please consider joining the Global Day of Action for Troy Davis on May 19, 2009.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org