At the outset, let me ask for forgiveness for having the audacity to write about a topic that is no longer part of the media spin cycle. I say this because, too often, the public worthiness of an issue is validated by media preoccupation with said issue-once it is no longer news worthy, the particular issue slips into obscurity until another catalyst ignites media fixation.
In the days leading up to his execution, Troy Davis, the man found guilty and sentenced to death for killing an off-duty police officer in Savannah, Ga., in 1989, was a hot topic and at the heart of many public and sometimes volatile debates about the death penalty.
Davis’ case and story contained elements that made it perfect for media sensationalism: very little physical evidence that linked him to the crime; many of the prosecution’s key witnesses-citing intimidation and fear-retracted their statements; and Davis and his defenders had support from high-profile persons and organizations. Davis was the topic, but the death penalty was the issue.
On Sept. 20, Davis ran out of appeals. That day, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles-the only authority in the state of Georgia that can commute a death sentence-denied Davis clemency and, for the fourth time, set his execution date. On Sept. 21, hundreds, if not thousands of news and media outlets descended upon the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison, where Davis was held on death row and where he was scheduled to die that day at 7 p.m.
In addition to the media, hundreds of his supporters gathered at the prison in Jackson, Ga., to protest the ruling while hoping that there would be a last-minute miracle to stop the execution. Earlier that day, Georgia’s Supreme Court rejected a last-ditch appeal by Davis’ lawyers, and so it seemed that the execution would move forward as scheduled. Despite Davis’ lawyers’ heroic attempt to obtain a stay of execution with an eleventh-hour appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the process only temporarily delayed the execution because the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately turned down Davis’ appeal. The execution by lethal injection occurred at 11:08 p.m. that evening.
Hundreds of African-Americans were among the protestors outside of the Georgia prison that night, and countless African-Americans throughout the country joined in protest and outrage at the execution of Davis. For many, this execution was one more possible example of another Black man wrongfully put to death by a justice system that has a notorious history of not being color-blind.
I must admit that on Sept. 21, I was among the scores of people glued to the television who watched as the events surrounding Davis’ execution unfolded. As I sat in my living room, captivated by the coverage on MSNBC and CNN, I wondered if a tremendous opportunity had been missed. As a 40-year-old Black man, I am well acquainted with the racial injustices that have taken place in this country and the narrative of death that has often accompanied racial injustice. But what would it have looked like if hundreds of African-Americans were gathered in front of the state prison Huntsville, Texas, the same night of Davis’ execution?
On that same night, a white man, Lawrence Russell Brewer, was being executed at a state prison in Texas for the infamous and savage dragging death of James Byrd Jr., a Black man. If justice is supposed to be color-blind, just imagine what a color-blind protest against the death penalty would have looked like on that night. On Sept. 21, the issue was not whether a Black man was executed in Georgia or a white man was executed in Texas, but that two human beings were executed.
The death penalty is not a Black or white issue, it is a human rights issue-and we should never lose sight of that reality.