Today we remember the execution of Troy Davis in Savannah, Georgia on September 21st, 2011.
Troy Davis’ case remains to this day an international symbol of tragedy and the need for progress as more and more countries around the world publically condemn the death penalty. Troy was convicted of the murder of police officer Mark MacPhail after a fight broke out at a Georgia bus station. Davis was at the scene of the crime along with several people and Sylvester “Redd” Coles, the man who instigated the fight with a homeless man, Larry Young, over a beer. However, despite eyewitness testimony stating that the man who had argued with Young was the same person who shot Officer MacPhail, Troy Davis was arrested in 1989 for the shooting.
Troy was convicted and kept on death row in 1991 for over two decades. Through this, his case became less and less clear as time went on. In 2007 and 2008, multiple witnesses in his trial confessed to the Board of Pardons and Paroles that they had either fabricated their testimony or were intimidated by police. In addition, two witnesses with connections to Cole implicated him as the shooter, Quiana Glover even going as well to swear that Cole confessed to the crime in 2009. However, her testimony was excluded from the 2010 evidentiary hearing. Finally, key physical evidence from the case, a pair of Troy’s shorts that contained traces of blood, was thoroughly challenged by the federal court and DNA and serology experts in 2008.
As the evidence got murkier and thoughts of Troy’s possible innocence began to spread, international media coverage sparked across the world. “In that time [he was on death row], he became a leader himself in the movement to end the death penalty, with his steadfast spirit and unshakeable faith in justice inspiring activists around the world. His case became a rallying cry that ignited the abolition movement, drawing hundreds and thousands of people to devote their time and energy to achieving justice,” says James Clark at Amnesty USA. Troy’s case exemplified a very real problem with the death penalty in the U.S: what does it mean for the wrongfully convicted? How much evidence is enough evidence?
Despite this global movement to stay Troy’s execution and the seemingly overwhelming evidence that he was possibly innocent, Troy was put to death by lethal injection. Today, we honor Troy Davis’ cause and recount his injustice so he may be remembered not for his conviction but for his movement. In his last words, he told the people who supported him to “continue to fight this fight.”
Since 1973, 156 people on death row have been exonerated. In addition, the Innocence Project Network has confirmed that they have “worked on cases of people who were executed before DNA testing could be conducted to confirm guilt or prove innocence, and we are aware of several non-DNA cases where evidence of innocence surfaced after people were executed.”
Because of this, policies must be put in place at both a state and federal level that help the criminal justice system understand causes of wrongful conviction, identify, and resolve them in ways that minimize the possibility of wrongful execution. We must also look at the steps forward we have taken since then: three states have abolished the death penalty (Connecticut, Maryland, and Delaware). In addition, three states (Pennslyvania, Washington, and Colorado) have placed a moratorium on executions, allowing more room for investigation for people on death row.
Currently, Florida still has capital punishment. However, it could be said that the tides are shifting. In May, Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch from Miami-Dade issued a ruling that Florida’s death penalty was unconstitutional because jurors are not required to agree unanimously on execution. Additionally, only one person has been executed in Florida this year, compared to seven in 2013. This decline has been reflected nationwide, with executions across the country hitting a 25-year low. Public opinion has slowly been shifting in the state as well, despite Rick Scott’s pro-capital punishment stance. Finally, a recent poll by researcher Craig Haney, a Professor of Psychology at the University of California – Santa Cruz, has found that a majority of Florida residents prefer life without parole to the death penalty for people convicted of murder.
Today, five years after Troy Davis lost his life, we must remind ourselves of his fight and recommit ourselves not only to death penalty reform but overall criminal justice reform to ensure this never happens again.