A Death Not in Vain

November 30, 2011

A Death Not in Vain

The state of Georgia executed a potentially innocent man in the face of an unprecedented global protest. Yet while family, friends and supporters around the world grieved for Troy Davis, veteran abolitionists recognized his execution as a critical turning point in the anti-death penalty movement.

Jungwon Kim

Jungwon Kim is editor of Amnesty International magazine.


''Well, first of all I'd like to address the MacPhail family. I'd like to let you all know that despite the situation—I know all of you still are convinced that I'm the person that killed your father, your son and your brother, but I am innocent. The incident that happened that night was not my fault. I did not have a gun that night. I did not shoot your family member. But I am so sorry for your loss. I really am, sincerely. All that I can ask is that each of you look deeper into this case, so that you really wil finally see the truth. I ask to my family and friends that you all continue to pray, that you all continue to forgive. Continue to fight this fight. For those about to take my life, may God have mercy on all of your souls. God bless you all."
—Troy Davis

Troy Davis' final statement before his execution was brief, devoid of anger and illuminated by the grace of a man who had become "spiritually free," as he once described himself, years ago. In the audio recording of his statement, released by the Georgia Department of Corrections after Davis was killed by lethal injection in Jackson, Ga., he steadfastly maintained his innocence in the murder for which he was sentenced to death—the fatal 1989 shooting of off-duty Savannah policeman Mark MacPhail. Davis' last message spoke to the collective trauma of hundreds of thousands of people around the world who took part in the unprecedented global anti-death penalty campaign spearheaded by Amnesty International USA.

Yet to characterize the Davis execution as a failure of the campaign would be to misunderstand the long game of human rights advocacy. Just as the quantum particle is both mass and light, so too can Davis' death inspire both despair and hope. Indeed, even as those who led AIUSA's campaign on behalf of Davis grieved for the loss of his life, they understood the killing as a critical turning point in the movement to abolish the death penalty—one of Amnesty International's central goals.

"With the horrific act of taking Troy Davis' life, the state of Georgia unwittingly galvanized the movement to bring down the death penalty. The miracle of this tragedy is that so many people have woken up," said Laura Moye, director of AIUSA's Death Penalty Abolition Campaign (DPAC). "Our job is to keep them awake," she said.

Amnesty International's Death Penalty Abolition Campaign (DPAC) took up the case of Troy Davis in 2006 because the police coercion, prosecutorial misconduct and institutional racism that led to his death sentence were emblematic of the failures of the U.S. death penalty system. AI's groundbreaking 2007 report Troy Davis: Where Is the Justice for Me? exposed Georgia's inexorable march to execute Davis, despite recantations by seven of nine witnesses (one of the remaining two witnesses against Davis was the lead alternate suspect) and a complete lack of physical evidence. Over the next five years, AIUSA staff and activists undertook the painstaking work of mobilizing support for Davis by building relationships with local churches, state-level abolition organizations, media and civil rights groups, and national groups like the NAACP.

Although AIUSA's focus on the Davis case was controversial in some quarters, it was a tactic designed to maximize the impact of AI activism on the general public. "There are thousands of people on death row," said Moye. "We have a principled position against all executions, but we've made a strategic decision to focus on those cases that help us move the national conversation forward toward abolition. If we were to fight all executions equally with our given resources, we wouldn't make an impact on any one case, let alone the larger issue."

The idea of putting a face on the death penalty proved to be more effective than anti-death penalty activists had ever imagined. The state of Georgia stayed Davis' execution three times—once in 2007 and twice in 2008—in the face of intense public pressure. On the third execution date, in October 2008, Davis' life was spared in a harrowing eleventh-hour decision. Without a doubt, Georgia authorities were influenced by AI's global letter campaigns, demonstrations, email petitions and the vocal support from an unlikely constellation of prominent figures like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former FBI director William Sessions and former Republican Congressman Bob Barr. This intense mobilization also carried Davis' case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which issued a rare order in 2009 for a new evidentiary hearing. By the time Davis faced his fourth and final execution date, about 1 million signatures had been collected on petitions calling on Georgia authorities to stop the execution, thousands across the globe had held vigils that made international news, and the list of his supporters included Jimmy Carter, Kim Kardashian and Outkast's Big Boi. No other case has ignited such a broad cross-section of the public since the U.S. death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

That Davis was ultimately executed despite the unprecedented global protest on his behalf was a staggering blow for the countless activists who worked on the campaign. Yet in the wake of the news that Davis had been killed, the core drivers of the campaign expressed a steely resolve that Davis' death would not be in vain. Even before the news vans cleared out of the parking lot of the Georgia Diagnostic Prison, where the execution took place, Troy's sister Martina Correia (an AIUSA volunteer leader for 10 years), visibly weak and wheelchair-bound after another round of chemotherapy for stage 4 breast cancer, was introducing Moye to protestors who were outraged by the killing and wanted to join AIUSA's anti-death penalty campaign.

Indeed, the execution was followed by a surge in anti-death penalty activism. More than 105,000 people signed AIUSA's online "Not In My Name" pledge, committing themselves to work to abolish the death penalty. Some 170,000 new supporters joined AIUSA's death penalty abolition campaign list. And three days after the execution, 1,000 activists from across the country joined Moye and AIUSA abolition campaigners on a nationwide conference call to learn what steps they could take to support the campaign's ongoing work, which includes intensified legislative efforts in Connecticut and Maryland, (both "watch states" that are close to abolishing the death penalty), and a national effort to spotlight the case of Reggie Clemons in Missouri (see sidebar below).

Meredith Reese, a 28-year-old paralegal from St. Louis, is one of many activists for whom the Davis execution marked a turning point. "After the state of Georgia murdered Troy, when I heard his final words, I knew I needed to stop standing on the sidelines. I had just become involved as an AIUSA activist and was feeling a little overwhelmed. Troy's execution gave me the fire to find my direction. I am currently working on the Reggie Clemons case with that fire, and I'm giving him 120 percent."

Activists like Reese are a critical part of AIUSA's abolition strategy, which combines attention to emblematic cases with public education and focused organizing in states where AI is able to advance the larger abolition movement. Missouri is the Midwest region's "priority state": its use of the death penalty has dropped significantly in the past decade, and AI aims to push this trend forward. The Clemons case makes such a strong argument against capital punishment that it may help "prime" Missouri's political environment for eventual abolition, especially given the presence of the state's longstanding anti-death penalty coalition.

For Larry Cox, a lifelong death penalty abolitionist whose last public act as AIUSA's executive director was to deliver a powerful speech on abolition at Davis' funeral, the import of Davis' life is clear. "This case may well be a watershed in the campaign to end the death penalty. Troy wanted for us to keep up this fight, and we will do so with a new determination to end the death penalty. This will be Troy Davis' legacy."

Reggie Clemons: Another Compelling Case for Abolition

Reggie Clemons was sentenced to death in St. Louis as an accomplice in the 1991 murder of two young white women, Julie and Robin Kerry, who plunged from the Chain of Rocks Bridge into the Mississippi River. Two other African American youths were also convicted, including Marlin Gray, who was executed in 2005; Clemons has consistently maintained his innocence. His sentence is marred by prosecutorial misconduct, inadequate legal representation, and allegations of police coercion and racial bias.

Call on Missouri authorities to commute the death sentence of Reggie Clemons: amnestyusa.org/reggie.