When I spoke with Troy Davis in Jackson prison in March, he talked about what he would do if the evidentiary hearing led to his release. One thing was sure, that he would add his energy to the movement to abolish the death penalty, but he also talked about how he would like to work with young people, to inspire them to lead good lives and stay out of trouble with the law. I have only spent time with this man on that one day, and a metal grate window separated us, but in his presence I had no doubts that he was someone who could have a positive impact on people’s lives.
In fact I knew that he already had. It is not just that he gave his younger sister the courage to walk again after suffering paralysis or that he has inspired his older sister to travel the world and talk herself hoarse campaigning for human rights. I keep meeting people who tell me how they heard about Troy’s case and felt moved to write to him, unsure what to expect. These people end up devoted to Troy, not because they are taking sides in a legal battle in which they have a vested interest, but because they are fascinated by the radiance and good will he projects and because he offers them true friendship.
The relationships they enter into with him, both constrained and enhanced by the old-fashioned mode of communication — letter writing — are real, and the correspondents speak of the benefits of knowing him. Troy is not someone who manipulates people outside the prison in order to advance his case. He gives a piece of himself in a sincere and remarkable manner, offering advice, thoughts, ideas, and gratitude.
One time I received a note from Troy on a separate sheet of paper that said, “You are already making a difference in my life.” I don’t think that he said that because I was publicizing the issues of doubt in his case, but simply because, like so many other people, I was recognizing his humanity and connecting him in some small way to the outside world. He has probably sent the same note to many people, because Troy is adamant about answering letters and about showing people he cares about their support.
His sister Kim related how she had cards printed up so that, prior to one of his execution dates, her brother could reply to a flood of letters without exhausting himself, but she noted with a smile that Troy kept writing handwritten notes on each card. In the visiting area, Troy, a model prisoner, without a single write-up in all the years he has been imprisoned, waves and greets everyone who passes by that he recognizes: guards, prisoners, visitors. In the way that he recognizes the individuality and humanity of others, I hope that he can have his own individual gifts and humanity recognized.
Laura Kagel is the State Death Penalty Abolition Coordinator for Georgia for Amnesty International USA. She is currently in Savannah to observe Troy Davis’ evidentiary hearing.