On September 21st 2011, despite serious doubts about his guilt, Troy Davis was executed by lethal injection by the state of Georgia. Members of Exeter University’s Amnesty group were amongst the hundreds of individuals and organisations who campaigned for Troy’s release and the abolition of the death penalty. But Troy’s death is not the end of this struggle. His death reminds us that the fight to abolish the death penalty is more urgent than ever: the death of Troy Davis must not have been in vain.
Troy was sentenced to death in 1991for the shooting of police officer Mark MacPhail. The case was based entirely on witness testimony and since Troy’s original trial, all but two of the state’s non-police witnesses have recanted or contradicted their testimony, one of whom is the principal alternative suspect. Allegations of police pressuring or coerced witnesses have abounded.
Billy Moore (a former prisoner of the same Georgian prison who was granted clemency hours before his execution) described in an article for The Guardian the conditions of death row:
“The death watch cell itself is like most cells on death row: 8ft by 6ft; a stainless steel toilet and sink combination; a slab bed welded to the wall; an inch thick mattress with blue and white stripes and an old olive green army blanket […] When you’re there, two officers observe you at all times. One would write down my every movement, the other my every word, to report back to the warden before the time of death – to stop you from taking your own life before the state takes it from you […] The execution chamber itself is only 10ft away.”
The juridical system was also at its most grotesque in the final hours of Troy’s life. Already the fourth execution date of his case, Troy’s execution was postponed by the supreme court on the very evening it was due to take place. After a further four hours of psychological torture, the final decision to execute Troy was made. Troy proclaimed his innocence to the last.
The death penalty is the ultimate denial of human rights; the premeditated killing of a human being by the state. Furthermore, in all the countries in which it is employed, it is used disproportionately against the poor and minority communities. The National Association of Mental Health has estimated that five to ten percent of those on death row have serious mental illness.
“We are Troy Davis” was the chorus of the campaign, led by Amnesty International, for Troy’s release. We at Exeter University’s Amnesty society wrote Troy letters of solidarity throughout his ordeal and were amazed at the kindness and optimism of his replies. On a chilly night in October, we held a vigil for Troy, one of many such ceremonies held to honour the man who came to embody the struggle for freedom and justice that anti-capital punishment campaigns strive for. If we remember Troy’s plight and the injustice of his death, his death will not have been in vain: “We are still Troy Davis”.