Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Troy Davis, 1968-2011: Racism and the Institutional Criminality of Capital Punishment

Law enforcement secure the prison entrance as protestors gather across from Jackson State Prison for the planned execution of inmate Troy Davis on September 21, 2011. (Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

Photo: Creative Commons/World Coalition Against the Death Penalty


Beyond Troy Davis: How Race Colors Death Row ‘Justice’
by Jamilah King, Hatty Lee
September 23 2011

A Wrenching Night of Global Solidarity as Troy Davis Dies

The state of Georgia ignored a mountain of evidence and killed Troy Davis on Wednesday night. But the movement that grew out of the effort to save his life has cast irreparable doubt on the country’s death penalty system. That a man whose innocence seemed so clear to many—or, at the very least, worth of a second look—can be so hastily killed casts doubt over nearly every stage of his prosecution. And that fact has become a rallying cry for people around the world.

Davis’s case is sadly typical. The Chicago-based Innocence Project, a group that has successfully fought for the exonerations of dozens of people from Illinois’ now-defunct death row, lists eyewitness misidentification and government misconduct as two of the leading causes of wrongful convictions. And even then, questions of guilt or innocence seem almost beside the point when you consider the fact that people of color often receive more harsh sentences for the same crimes as whites, especially when the victim is white. As historian and author William Jelani Cobb told our own Akiba Solomon this week, “The implication is that a white life is worth more.”

Anti-death penalty groups like Amnesty International and the NAACP are working hard to use the momentum surrounding Davis’s case to ask more probing questions about how to fix America’s broken punishment system. Here’s a closer look at who ends up paying the most for which crimes: [SEE DATA AND GRAPHS ABOVE AT TOP OF THIS PAGE]

Troy Davis, 1968-2011
Photo: AP Photo/The Savannah Morning News


The Long, Murderous Arm of the Law Has Killed Troy Davis
by Kai Wright, Jamilah King
September 21 2011

Let us not mince words: The state of Georgia just murdered Troy Davis. The state coroner will list homicide as his cause of death. But he wasn’t the first and, sadly, he won’t be the last person slaughtered in the name of U.S. law and order. There are today dozens more people scheduled to be killed by states, according to Amnesty International. Their likely deaths represent the ultimate act of perversity in a system that destroys untold thousands of primarily black and brown lives every day.

The execution came following a harrowing and wrenching night for Davis’s family and supporters all over the world. Hundreds had gathered for a vigil outside of the Jackson, Ga., prison where Davis was put to death. Literally minutes before Davis’s scheduled 7 p.m. execution, the U.S. Supreme Court delayed the killing in order to review a final appeal. A little over three hours later, news broke that the court had refused to block the execution. He was slain at 11:08 p.m. eastern.

As the world waited those agonizing hours, the crowd chanted, sang songs and prayed. Perhaps the most moving speaker of all was Davis’s 17-year-old nephew DeJaun Davis-Correia. Jen Marlowe has reported for Colorlines.com on how DeJaun grew up visiting his uncle in prison, and was inspired by his plight to get involved in the fight against inequity in the criminal justice system. In an interview with Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman outside of the prison, DeJaun said pointedly, “I am Troy Davis, we are Troy Davis, and you could be Troy Davis, too, Ms. Amy Goodman.”

Amnesty International director Larry Cox offered that, importantly, the massive movement that developed around this case offers an opportunity to question this country’s values. And it offers a chance to engage the many people who are repulsed that the state would murder in our names and yet remain silent about it. “We have to take people who were against the death penalty and never did anything about it,” Cox told Goodman, and mobilize them. “Now is the time.”

Davis’s case offers a bracing and depressing illustration of capital punishment’s many problems. In their eagerness to prosecute a black man for murdering a white cop, local officials set in motion a killing machine that, once turned on, is near impossible to halt without executive intervention. Much has already been written about the details of Davis’s case; no reasonable observer can deny there is significant doubt as to his guilt. But our criminal justice system is anything but reasonable. Those who don’t come into contact with it can sit in self-satisfied assurance that our cops and courts measure out blind justice that keeps society well ordered. The evidence simply does not support that fantasy, as Davis’s life and death so dreadfully illustrate. In fact, if we are to judge our criminal justice system by its outcomes, it is built to round up masses of black men, transfer public funds to private companies to warehouse them, and then kill them in cold blood.

Colorlines.com will write much more about this case and about criminal justice reform broadly in the coming days and weeks. For tonight, we mourn not only Davis’s life, but all of those lives that have been destroyed and taken in the name of a criminally unjust system of law and order. Can this nation do no better? Georgia Rep. John Lewis perhaps put it best. “Do not weep for Troy Anthony Davis, he will be with God,” Lewis tweeted as his state committed murder, “weep for Georgia and for our Nation. Capital punishment is barbaric.”


The Night They Killed Troy Davis

SEPTEMBER 22, 2011

Rutgers historian William Jelani Cobb was outside of the prison, last night, where Troy Davis was held and executed. He filed this report while bearing "witness to a great evil." Jelani has guest-posted here before. We're always happy to have him back offering his unique mix of politics, history and on-site reporting.

Erik S. Lesser / AFP-Getty Images / September 21, 2011)

JACKSON, Georgia -- The Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison sits a quarter mile off Interstate 75 in Jackson, just outside the commuter suburbs of Atlanta. The technical name for the place obscures its most notorious function: it houses the death chamber for the state's executions. Last night, for more than seven hours, hundreds of people prayed, chanted, sang, hoped and shouted in front of that building in a vain effort to prevent the state of Georgia from extinguishing the life of Troy Davis.

A trickle of people began showing up outside the prison in the late afternoon. By 5 p.m. they had grown to about 200 and been cordoned off by police tape in front of a truck stop across from the prison. A knot of organizers from Amnesty International unfurled a huge banner saying "Free Troy Davis" and another set of activists held a sign saying we had returned to the days of the Scottsboro Nine. A principal came out with several of his elementary school students and a busload of students poured in from Spelman and Morehouse Colleges. But the largest group was from Al Sharpton's National Action Network -- at least thirty of whom had driven up from Savannah, where the murder of Mark McPhail took place. They set about coordinating the chants, moving people with signs to the forefront so that passersby could see exactly what we were protesting and generally keeping the protests going.

Initially the police outside the prison were unfazed by our presence, relaxed enough to be polite. But that changed as we drew closer to the scheduled hour of the execution. At about 6 p.m., local law enforcement, sheriffs, SWAT teams and state troopers began putting on riot gear. Over the course of the next hour they moved closer and closer to the protesters with their batons in hand. For their part they may have hoped that their show of force would prevent things from getting out of control but the reality is that it appeared that they wanted to instigate violence. It was impossible not to realize that from their perspective, we were praying for a man who had gunned down their fellow officer.

By 6:30 the crowd numbered at least 500 people. We spilled past the tape and onto the grassy barrier between the truck stop and Prison Boulevard where the facility is located. Trucks pulled in and out of the station began honking their horn in support of Troy Davis's cause.

But what was most surprising and disturbing is that the group was more than 90% black. For all the discussion about the implications of the death penalty for the country at large this broke down, as always, to an issue of race and black people would have to do the heavy lifting if any change were going to occur. The racial balance skewed so heavily that when a young white couple sat down on the grass next to me I asked them what organization they were with. The woman reply hit me hard: "We're not with an organization. I know Troy Davis -- my brother is on death row with him."

By 7 p.m. people nearly everyone there was crying or praying or both, imploring God to save Troy Davis's soul if he would not save his life. In the midst of this I realized that there were no counter-protests. Later I learned there were a few. But still I saw no crowds gathered to voice their support for what was happening inside that prison. This was a small grace but it was also possibly because few believed that Davis' fate was ever in doubt. And they had no reason to.

Georgia's criminal justice system is a microcosm for the kind of racial disparities that plague the entire country. Blacks are 30.5% of the state's population but make up 61% of Georgia's prisoners. A few years back the state legislature, in the name of getting tough on crime, passed a bill that created draconian penalties and allowed juveniles to be charged as adults for a wide array of crimes, including simple robbery, which would normally be handled by a juvenile court. The legislation was so poorly written that in the state if a 14 year old and a 35 year old rob a liquor store together, the teenager can - and in some instances has -- received a sentence longer than that of the adult. It can go without saying that these laws have disproportionately impacted black youth.

Both the state legislature and the governorship are firmly in the hands of the GOP and, though the newly elected Nathan Deal remains the subject of a federal corruption probe, no Democrat has stood a chance of becoming governor since Roy Barnes was turned out of office for opposing the Confederate flag nearly a decade ago. This is Georgia in the 21st century, the state that claimed, despite recantations, police coercion, contrary evidence and the lack of physical evidence, that it was certain beyond a reasonable doubt that Troy Davis was responsible for the death of Mark McPhail and that he should die for it.

The sobs of the mourning crowd were punctured by shouts when we heard that the Supreme Court had stepped in to review the case. The reality is that this crowd, predominantly African American, many battle-wearied activists, still believed that this execution simply could not happen. For hours, their energy and commitment unflagging, people beat drums, held candles and sang civil rights songs. And here lies the paradox: even as people most intimately aware of the failings of this country, so many of us subscribed to a faith that justice would prevail that when we received word of the court's refusal to grant a stay the reaction was stunned disbelief.

The feeling, as I stood in front of the truck stop in the middle of the night, was that we were witness to a great evil -- not solely the taking of what may well have been an innocent life, but also in the false certainty that sought to sell this killing as justice. When word came at 11:08 p.m. that Troy Davis was no more, women began wailing; several of them fell to the ground heaving inconsolably. A few men offered stumbling, meandering prayers that some good might come of this, that it would inspire some greater reckoning with the arbitrary, corrupted realities of capital punishment in this country.

And I, at that point, thought about my father, a native of Hazlehurst, Georgia who had abandoned his home state for New York in 1941. He lived the remainder of his life there, firm in his belief that a black man's life was seen as worthless in Georgia. I grew up hearing the stories of the sadistic violence that was commonplace there, about a black women he'd known growing up who was raped and tortured by white men who went unpunished. I moved to Georgia in 2001, secure in my belief that the place had changed, that our efforts had yielded success and the stories my father told me were now consigned to the horror closets of history.

But last night, progress, hopes and a black presidency be damned, the state of Georgia had the last word. And they were determined to prove the old man right.


William Jelani Cobb Reports from the Prison Gate

by Akiba Solomon
September 22 2011

Last night, historian and author William Jelani Cobb spent seven hours outside of the Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson, Georgia, demonstrating, documenting—then mourning—the execution of Troy Davis. Excerpts from our talk the morning after:

For some reason I didn’t think the execution was going to happen.

I know. Despite all we know about this country, you want to believe that things have changed.

You posted lots of photos and tweeted throughout the night, but you weren’t there in a professional capacity. What compelled you to go down there?

Well, it was political and personal. Politically, I felt that as a person of conscience I could not just sit back and not let my voice be heard when the state was going to execute a man [amid] damning questions about the nature of the trial. Personally, I think about this in terms of my father who left Georgia in 1941 for New York and never came back. When you’d ask him about his home state, he would spit before describing how a black man’s life had no value there. Now, I believed in this narrative of me coming back to Georgia. [Living and teaching here] was almost a way for me to prove that things had changed, that the efforts of all of our people had born some fruit. But now, ironically, I can see where my father was right. It turns out these people have no concern for justice and the judicial system is a sham. When you look at the evidence in this particular [case], this literally could be any of us.

I can understand why Officer Mark MacPhail’s family wanted the execution to take place, because they truly believe Troy Davis killed him. But given the glaring questions, I’m puzzled about others who weren’t intimately connected. Did you see any people demonstrating in favor of the execution?

I didn’t see any, and I was there from about 5:20 until almost midnight. The people out were saying, “Spare this man’s life.” At the height of it, there were probably about 500 of us out there.

When the word came out that the Supreme Court wouldn’t [stay the execution], how did the crowd react?

I’ll just take you through the whole night. In the beginning, we were crushed. People were just wailing out there. As we got closer to the initial execution hour, the tension ratcheted up. The police—whether they were anticipating things getting out of control or whether they were attempting to provoke things—were getting closer and closer to us. When word came that the Supreme Court was stepping in, there was elation. But we just sank when we learned that there wasn’t going to be any change in his fate. People quietly gave in. As Davis was in the process of dying, some prayed. Some people fell out on the grass. Others were talking about what we should do next. It was a roller coaster. And, you know, one of the things I was really disturbed about was that the crowd was about 95 percent black. At no point could you say that this was a cross section. It was up to black folk to say that this was a miscarriage of justice.

Why would a predominantly black crowd disturb you?

Because it felt black people had to shoulder the burden on our own, but this wasn’t a black issue; this was a death penalty issue. We can’t ever get around the implications of this case for everyone. I think about this young white couple that was standing next to me last night. Because there were so few white people there, I [assumed] they were part of an organization. But when I asked them why they’d come out, the woman said, “I know Troy. I’ve spoken to him.” I asked her how. She said,”My brother’s on death row.”

Was she agitated?

No. She was very matter of fact. To me, it was outstanding that despite the turmoil and difficulty of having a brother on death row, she was out there to the last trying to fight for Troy’s life. … Overall, it felt like the crowd was out there doing our best to keep our spirits up and to encourage everyone else, but it was a horrible place to be.

Take me back to the police. How did protestors react as they were inching in?
When I got there at roughly 5:20, police were across the street directing people and traffic and they were noticeably polite. But at about 6:00 or 6:15 the sheriffs came in and put up barricades and put on riot gear.

You actually saw them putting on riot gear?

Yes. Soon another group of police came, and [stood] 40 to 50 feet from prison. Then yet another group came. They were getting farther and farther from the prison and closer and closer to us [holding] these, like, three-foot wooden batons. Maybe they thought a show of force would diminish the possibility of something jumping off. They also could have had the impression that we were there because we love someone who had killed one of their own. The mood was really tense. There was a vibe there—it was as if police were just waiting for an excuse to crack some heads.

Did you see anyone get arrested?
At one point they rushed into the crowd and arrested three people. They just yanked them out. One young man, a white guy, walked across the street with his sign. The police told him to [move] and he just turned around and put his hands behind him to permit himself to be arrested. Overall, this wasn’t a hardcore, radical crowd. It was a diverse group of people—including elderly people, pregnant women and children—who were there because of their conscience. This was a matter of morality for them.

On Facebook and Twitter, I saw several people asking why Obama didn’t step in. Since you wrote a book about him [The Substance of Hope], what are your thoughts?
I think that if Obama had stepped in, he would have aborted his presidency. I suspect that he and/or his administration was working behind the scenes. But if he had come out publicly, he would have no political capital to do anything else. Now we can have a debate about whether that would have been a fair exchange—saying something about Troy Davis in exchange for everything else. But I don’t doubt the stakes. The other thing is that legally, I don’t know if a president can grant clemency in a state case. I do wonder about how [George W. Bush] granted Scooter Libby a pardon for leaking the identity of [CIA agent Valerie Plame] to the [press], or how the pardons at the end of the Clinton administration happened. But I don’t know what Obama’s capacity was to intervene in this case. *[Edtior’s note: The president does not have the authority to intervene in state convictions, but the Justice Department could investigate claims that Davis’s civil rights were violated in his trial.]*

But what makes you think the president or the administration acted behind the scenes though?

Well when the Supreme Court looked at it again, I wondered if there had been a phone call. But this is purely my assessment, my guess. Maybe that makes me feel more comfortable.

So after the execution, what kinds of conversations were you having about what to do next?

We were talking about how to organize and fight against the death penalty in the broader sense. I think in some ways, [by expecting Obama to step in] we want to do an end run around the work we have to do. The truth is, a majority of people in this country support the death penalty. Only just over a third are opposed to it. They don’t understand that it is virtually impossible to have a death penalty that is fair. So we have to fight the unshakeable faith people have in the idea that [only] people who are guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt are executed. I mean, look at the people who said that it was OK to execute Troy Davis. There is no rational argument for it because witnesses said police forced them to lie. Others said that the person who reported [Davis] to the police was the one who actually shot [Officer MacPhail]. The people who presented this case with a veneer of infallibility willfully turned off their power of deduction.

I’ve heard people talk about racism in this case, but they weren’t citing specifics. There’s just a general sense that, as you said, a black man’s life isn’t worth much. But is that all there is to it? Do you think race played a direct role?

I think it was racial in the sense of who the victim was. In the landmark Baldus study, what the death row team found was that, statistically, courts are more likely to impose the death penalty when the victim is white, regardless of the makeup the jury. [The implication] is that a white life is worth more.

Does last night’s execution of Russell Brewer—a [white supremacist] responsible for James Byrd’s dragging death—say anything about equality in the death penalty?

I saw comments to that effect on the Internet. But I would argue that the system is so flawed that advocating the killing of a white supremacist only allows us to pretend that we have equality. It’s like, “We’ll use this one instance to rationalize this entire system.” To me, that’s the criminal justice version of tokenism.