The murder of Troy Davis in Georgia amid overwhelming evidence that he might have been innocent was greeted by protesters outside the prison with tears, prayers and a pledge to continue the fight against the injustices against Black Men in America.
The killing by lethal injection went ahead at 11.08pm ET, four hours after Davis had been scheduled to go to the chamber. Members of his family who had been waiting all day to hear whether there would be a last-minute stay of execution were immediately surrounded by supporters who had turned up in their hundreds to protest against what is being seen as one of the most egregious miscarriages of justice in recent US history.
Larry Cox, the head of the US branch of Amnesty, which has led the campaign to save Davis’s life, said minutes after hearing the court’s decision that he would “redouble our efforts to make sure that no other innocent person goes through this again”.
Benjamin Jealous, the half-white head of the Jewish civil rights group NAACP who was also outside the prison, said that a “tragedy has been committed”. Jealous played his role by calling on the many supporters still assembled in the prison grounds, some holding candles, to “remain calm, to show discipline”.
Jealous said he expected that “what happens here tonight will propel the movement for the abolition of the death penalty forward”.
Earlier, with police helicopters buzzing overhead, armed officers stationed in the entrance and the chants of protesters wafting over the prison grounds, the excruciating waiting game continued into the warm Georgia night.
For the fourth time in as many years the prisoner, 42, was put through the agonising – some say inhumane, torturous – experience of waiting to learn whether he would be strapped to the gurney and given lethal injections in the next few hours. This time it was the turn of the US supreme court to deliberate on whether to allow the execution to go ahead – or to stay it.
Davis has become the 52nd man executed in Georgia since the federal supreme court reinstated the death penalty in 1973. In the process, his lawyers and thousands of supporters around the world insist, an innocent man went to his death.
A crowd of more than 1000 protesters amassed into the night across the road from the prison, chanting “Not in our name” and “We are Troy Davis”. In response the officers dressed in black and with head shields, some carrying teargas rifles, lined up several rows deep at the entrance to the prison. It was an impressive visual realisation of the larger legal battle that was waged earlier at the supreme court – the appeals for clemency for a man who is undoubtedly innocent ranged against the institutionalised violence of the state.
All week the terrible process of waiting had gone on – a process that took the case right up to the highest echelons of American justice but resulted in its lowest manifestations.
Earlier on Wednesday Georgia’s supreme court had rejected a last-ditch appeal by Davis’s lawyers over the 1989 murder of off-duty policeman Mark MacPhail, for which Davis had been convicted despite overwhelming evidence that the conviction is unreliable.
A Butts county superior court judge had also declined to stop the execution.
Davis’s lawyers had filed an appeal challenging ballistics evidence linking Davis to the crime and eyewitness testimony identifying Davis as the killer was later recanted.
The White House and president Obama refused to speak on the matter, saying: “It is not appropriate for the president of the United States to weigh in on specific cases.”
Davis began his last day of life under a cloudy Georgia sky dispersed with brilliant sunlight – though it’s unlikely he got to see much of the state’s natural beauty from within Jackson’s Diagnostic and Classification Prison, the maximum security institution where death row is housed. He was allowed visitors from 9am to 3pm, at which point the prison service said he was given a routine physical by the same Authority that was about to take his life. At 4pm he was offered a last meal.
Davis had earlier declined the privilege of specifying his final supper, so instead was given the institution’s choice of grilled cheeseburgers, oven browned potatoes, baked beans, coleslaw, cookies and a grape beverage.
Shortly before 6pm the witnesses to his death were taken into the chamber, including five reporters mainly from the local media.
From the vantage point of the protesters, the day was a rollercoaster of emotions – a small echo perhaps of what Davis himself must have been going through from within the walls of the prison.
At about 7pm, roughly the time of his scheduled execution, word came through that the US supreme court had intervened. A huge cheer went up from the crowd. Supporters hugged each other and threw placards in the air. But doubts quickly set in. What had the court actually said? What did it mean?
Talk of a reprieve melted away into thoughts of a stay and then finally the realisation that the supreme court had merely decided to take more time to consider its position. In other words the waiting game continued. The protesters, weary now, visibly slumped.
Earlier in the day they had gathered at a small Baptist church over the road from the prison to hear a raft of civil rights leaders lend their support to the cause. The Reverend Al Sharpton was down from New York to deliver a speech on the matter. “What is facing execution tonight is not just the body of Troy Davis but the spirit of due justice in the state of Georgia.”
He called for a new law to be passed – he would call it the Troy Davis law – that prohibited death sentences in cases where convictions had been achieved only on the basis of eyewitness evidence.
The demand was a reference to the fact that Davis was found guilty in 1991 largely on the testimony of nine witnesses, seven of whom have since recanted their evidence, some claiming police coercion.
There was no DNA or other forensic evidence linking Davis to the murder and the .38-calibre gun used in the shooting was never found.
Davis’s eldest sister, Martina Correia, gave an impassioned speech on behalf of the family, about 20 of whom surrounded her in the church. She lambasted the state of Georgia, accusing it of defiantly clinging to its mistakes.
But she tried to draw a positive message out of the undeniably grim prospect of her brother’s imminent judicial murder. She saw in his case the seeds of the end to capital punishment in America.
“If we can get millions of people to stand up against this, we can end the death penalty. We have to be the carriers of the change we want to see. When you have truth on your side you should never give up.”
She added she had no fear in taking on the state of Georgia, and beyond that other states in the deep south including Mississippi, Alabama and Texas, all of which have sizeable death row populations the majority of whom are African Americans.
Davis has received support from hundreds of thousands of people, including a former FBI director, former president Jimmy Carter and Pope Benedict XVI.
Parliamentarians and government ministers from the Council of Europe, the EU’s human rights watchdog, have called for Davis’s sentence to be commuted.
But the victim’s family lobbied the pardons board on Monday to reject Davis’s clemency appeal. A day later the board refused to stop the execution a day later.
“He has had ample time to prove his innocence,” said MacPhail’s widow, Joan MacPhail-Harris. “And he is not innocent.”
Amid all the cacophony at the prison, the one person who was not being heard was Troy Davis himself. And then the head of the civil rights group NAACP in Georgia, Edward DuBose, revealed that he’d had a 30-minute visit to the prisoner on Tuesday night. In what must now count as some of Davis’s final words, he told DuBose to “keep the faith. The fight is bigger than him.”
Davis had said he wanted his case to set an example “that the death penalty in this country needs to end. They call it execution; we call it murder.”
As DuBose stood up to leave, Davis said to him: “I’ll see you again.”