The state of Georgia plans to execute Troy Davis on September 21, 2011 with little physical evidence tying him to the crime and enough doubt to warrant a stay. Mr. Davis, himself the son of a law enforcement officer, was convicted of killing a white Savannah police officer, Mark MacPhail. Georgia has a complicated history with racial relations, and Savannah has had her share of racial issues only recently somewhat quelled, but still simmering. This case appears to be deeply immersed in those problems but the issue of killing another human being should never be political.
Morally, when I try to come to terms with the death penalty, most often I’m left with a question I can’t answer. I was taught that no one has the right to take another person’s life except in self-defense, and yet I understand that there are so crimes so heinous that they appear to warrant the death penalty. That’s a decision that should weigh on us as a society; a seldom used solution, undertaken gravely and with the utmost confidence that the evidence has proven way beyond a reasonable doubt that this person is guilty.
We don’t have that evidence in the Troy Davis case. Color of Change notes, “Seven of the original nine witnesses have recanted, with many saying their testimony was a result of law enforcement pressure. Of the remaining witnesses, one is highly suspect and the other could be the actual culprit in the officer’s murder.” In 2007, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles stayed Mr Davis’ execution, saying, “[The Board] will not allow an execution to proceed in this State unless and until its members are convinced that there is no doubt as to the guilt of the accused.” What has changed?
What kind of world are we making for our children when we callously put a man to death without physical evidence, when new evidence has cast doubt on the conviction? There are times when politics should be trumped by our morality, our humanity.
Savannah is a tourist town, and can hardly afford to be tainted with the murder of a potentially innocent man. The Georgia Pardons and Parole Board needs to take a stand for mercy, grace and compassion, if justice isn’t reason enough to compel a stay. Georgia has taken the lead in other historical fights; in fact, slavery was officially banned in Savannah by General Oglethorpe in 1735 (unofficially was another matter) until 1750.
When Savannah did institute slavery, some slaves were “nominal” slaves, and were permitted to live in their own houses while the law looked the other way. This attempt to mitigate the impact of slavery hardly exonerates the immorality of the institution, but it demonstrates something important about the conflicted nature of the early settlers in Savannah, a city that has stood apart in many ways from other southern cities.
When we look back at the troubled history the South has had with racial relations, it’s even more clear that it is morally incumbent upon us all to ensure that justice prevails in the Troy Davis case. Contrary to some radical conservatives’ claims, it’s not about “white guilt”, it’s about who we are as a people. But if our shame over the past is so deep that we can’t face it honestly, how will we feel if we let a man who has already served 20 years for a crime it appears he may not have committed be killed by the “government”?
We can’t give life back once it’s taken. Is it really our right to take a life when new evidence suggests that the person may be innocent? In what world is this justice? And if there’s doubt, shouldn’t we be looking for the real killer of Mark MacPhail, whose own family must surely be suffering? 51 members of Congress have asked the Georgia parole board to offer clemency to Mr Davis, including some pro-death penalty members.
This shouldn’t be political; it’s about right and wrong. It’s about the soul of our nation and the soul of the south. Savannah is better than this, and can lead the South once again in doing the right thing, even when immersed in confusing, emotional, and bitter landscapes. After all, Savannah always has her grace to rely upon when all else is lost.
Only the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole stands between Davis and the lethal injection chamber. Take action.
Image: The Savannah Morning News Aug. 22, 1991