At 11:08 pm Wednesday, the state of Georgia killed Troy Davis. Just before he was executed, Troy maintained his innocence, urged people to dig deeper into the case to find the truth, and said “For those about to take my life, may God have mercy on your souls, may God bless your souls.” It’s a tragic day for Troy, for his family, and for equality, fairness, and justice.
It’s hard to know what to say at a time like this. In this moment, and in the days and weeks before Troy’s execution, we’ve felt all kinds of things — anger, sadness, inspiration, hope and hopelessness. This is a time to mourn and remember Troy, to contemplate the profound loss we’re facing, to send love and support to Troy’s family and friends. It’s incredibly important to take the time to spiritually and emotionally care for Troy’s family and the amazing community that has arisen to support Troy — and it feels hard to muster the energy to do much more than that.
But before he died, Troy told us that this was about more than him — and he called on those of us who have fought against his execution to continue fighting for justice, even if we weren’t successful in saving his life. Now is also an important moment to take stock of what’s brought us to this point — the criminal justice system that allowed this to happen, and the movement we’ve built to fight for Troy and others facing injustice and oppression at the hands of that system.
Race, the criminal justice system, and the death penalty
At every stage of the criminal justice system, Black people and other minorities face inequality and discrimination. We all know about people who’ve been treated unfairly by police or by the courts. When the entire system treats Black people unequally, it means that the death penalty is applied unequally too. Troy Davis’ case underscores the way in which this systemic inequality can lead to a tragic miscarriage of justice.
In most cases, people who’ve been treated unfairly or wrongly convicted have some chance to correct the injustice. People who have been mistreated by the police can sue them. People who are wrongly serving time can be granted new trials, can be released from prison, and are sometimes entitled to compensation. As we all know, the safeguards that can correct abuse by the criminal justice system often fail, and rampant inequality persists. Usually, people can at least keep trying.
But there’s no way to correct a death sentence. If Troy Davis were serving a sentence of life in prison without parole, he could continue to press the legal system to grant him a fair trial — but because the death penalty exists, he will not have that opportunity.
Troy Davis’ case has sparked a national conversation about the death penalty. In the past, much of the debate around the death penalty has focused on the morality of killing people as a legal punishment — a very important question that brings out a lot of strong opinions. But even if we completely leave aside the question whether or not it can ever be right for the government to punish a murderer by killing them, there’s an entirely different debate to be had — whether or not we can have the death penalty and actually avoid the possibility of killing innocent people. In a criminal justice system that routinely misidentifies Black suspects and disproportionately punishes Black people, Black folks are more likely to be wrongfully executed.
There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the death penalty has been used to kill innocent people many times. Since 1973, more than 130 people have been released from death row because of evidence that they were wrongly convicted. Troy Davis is one of many people who were executed despite serious questions about their guilt, and he’s called on his supporters to continue working to end the death penalty.
A group of NAACP organizers went to visit Troy in prison yesterday, and NAACP’s Robert Rooks said this about the visit:
For someone that was facing death the very next day, he was just full of life and wanted to spend time talking to the younger staff, the interns, giving them direction and hope and asking them to hold onto God. And he challenged them. He challenged them by saying, “You have a choice. You can either fold up your bags after tomorrow and go home, or you can stand and continue this fight.” He said it doesn’t—it didn’t begin with Troy Davis, and this won’t end if he is executed today. He just asked us all just to continue to fight to end the death penalty, if in fact he’s executed.
A powerful movement
For years, ColorOfChange members have been an important part of a growing movement to stop Troy Davis’ execution. Hundreds of phone calls from ColorOfChange members to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole helped delay Davis’ execution twice. Over the past year, there’s been a huge outpouring of support for Davis from ColorOfChange members — more than 100,000 of us have signed petitions, and we raised more than $30,000 to run radio ads in Georgia calling for justice for Troy.
And we’ve been part of an even bigger movement — NAACP, Amnesty International, National Action Network, Change.org, and others have all been a major part of the fight for Troy Davis, and there are now over close to a million petition signatures overall. Prominent people from all across the political spectrum have spoken out: members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Desmond Tutu, former President Jimmy Carter, Pope Benedict XVI, former FBI Director William Sessions, former Georgia Republican congressman Bob Barr, and former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Norman Fletcher.
This movement couldn’t stop Davis’ execution — but it’s a movement that won’t die with Troy Davis. There’s no better way to honor Troy’s memory than to keep fighting for justice.