Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Troy Davis and 'The Tidal Wave of Justice'

A New Orleans Vigil, the Execution in Georgia

At 6:00 p.m. on Wednesday, September 21, New Orleanians had gathered in front of the Louisiana Supreme Court building, in the French Quarter, for a vigil sponsored by the Louisiana Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (LCADP), an organization co-founded by death penalty abolitionist Sr. Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking. Short of a reprieve by the U.S. Supreme Court, Troy Anthony Davis was the next "dead man walking" to an execution chamber in the United States. Rev.
 William Barnwell led us in prayer. 
Rev. William Barnwell leads New 
Orleanians in a prayer during the Troy 
Davis vigil on September 21.

Well after the execution was scheduled to have taken place, someone discovered on her phone's news feed that Democracy Now! was reporting the Supreme Court had stayed the execution. Rev. Barnwell led the elated, tearful group in singing "Amazing Grace." But the jubilation was short-lived. Democracy Now! had repeated the interpretation of an AP report that the Supreme Court was delaying its decision, not staying the execution, which could move forward at any time in the coming hours. While many interpreted this as a hopeful sign, others were cynical.

"They used to do this in California," commented one of the attendees. They would announce a delay, then wait until after the crowds dispersed and go ahead with the execution." Did it really take more than four hours for the Supreme Court justices to unanimously decide that Troy Davis had to die, despite the overwhelming doubts?

Troy Anthony Davis was executed by the state of Georgia, and declared dead at 11:08 p.m. on September 21, the Autumn Equinox. Justice Clarence Thomas received the appeal; the decision had bee
n unanimous. Ironically, the justice who had during his Senate confirmation hearings accused his detractors of carrying out "a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks," was responsible for what was called "a legal lynching" of another African American, who was more likely to have been innocent of the charges against him than those lodged against Clarence Thomas. There is no more high-tech lynching in the world than US state-ordered executions.

The day prior to his execution, Troy Davis delivered a message to his supporters through a team member of Amnesty International U.S.A.'s Abolish the Death Penalty Campaign: 

The struggle for justice doesn't end with me. This struggle is for all the Troy Davises who came before me and all the ones who will come after me. I'm in good spirits and I'm prayerful and at peace."

In his final words from the gurney to which he had been strapped, he spoke to relatives of the Savannah police officer Mark MacPhail, whom Davis was convicted of murdering, and reiterated his innocence; he asked his supporters to continue to pursue the truth; he forgave his executioners and asked God to bless them. Shortly after the execution, Laura Moye, director of Amnesty International USA's DPAC, issued a letter in which she said:

"The state of Georgia has proven what we already know. Governments cannot be trusted with the awful power over life and death. Today, Georgia didn't just kill Troy Davis, they killed the faith and confidence that many Georgians, Americans and Troy Davis supporters worldwide used to have in our criminal justice system."

Amnesty International's 'Special Call'

On September 23, Moye hosted a "special call," a teleconference of 600 participants to hear Amnesty International USA staff "discuss Troy Davis' life, what your work means for the death penalty abolition movement as a whole, and what further steps will be taken." In his opening comments, AI-USA executive director Larry Cox spoke of the millions of people who had gotten involved in the effort to save Troy Davis's life, many from unexpected quarters, such as reality TV's Kim Kardashian, who was tweeting to her millions of followers how horrific this impending execution was.

"And it brought to my mind a line from the poet Seamus Heaney, whom you might have heard of
he's worked with Amnesty International for years—that says: 'But then, once in a lifetime / the longed for tidal wave / of justice can rise up, / and hope and history rhyme.' All of you are part of that tidal wave of justice—by joining vigils, writing letters to the editor, talking to friends.... All this has communicated a feeling of determination.... "

The lines are from the stanzas recited by the chorus at the end of a long poem entitled, startlingly enough, The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles' Philoctetes. The poet presented a reading of this excerpt in Dublin several months ago:

The Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney is, of course, a brilliant poet, and it's a brilliant allusion by Larry Cox in relation to the death penalty abolition movement, which Troy Davis and his supporters have created a tidal surge now washing over the broken criminal justice system in this country, demanding an end to the barbaric practice that puts the United States in the top five executioners in the world, in the select company of China, Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. According to Amnesty International, in 2008 93% of all executions occurred in these top five execution countries. (See Amnesty International's Worldwide Death Penalty Abolition Timeline.) In a September 27 blog post on Amnesty International's website, Brian Evans wrote:

"The same night that Troy Davis and Lawrence Brewer were put to death in the USA, a 17-year-old was hanged in Iran. Two days earlier, a Sudanese man  in Saudi Arabia was publicly beheaded for the crime of “sorcery.” The day after Troy Davis’ execution, Alabama lethally injected Derrick Mason, its 5th execution of the year." 
A week after the state of Georgia executed Troy Davis, Florida executed Manuel Valle, who had also convicted of murdering a police officer and, according to Amnesty International, "received no meaningful clemency process."

Former Law Enforcement Officers Were Given the Power to Deny Troy Davis Clemency and Media Access

While many executions have been conducted in the U.S. with little comment from proponents of capital punishment, the doubt surrounding Troy Davis's case caused many to speak out against his execution, and even to cause them to doubt the justice of the death penalty altogether. The prosecution of Troy Davis was based solely on accounts by eight eyewitnesses, seven of whom later recanted, and one of the other two admitted to having committed the crime. There was no physical evidence linking him to the crime. Georgia's clemency power rests in its State Board of Pardons and Paroles, whose members are appointed by the governor. After the white members of the Board denied clemency for Troy Davis on September 20, all that stood between him and execution was Butt County Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court, each of which denied a stay the following day.
Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles,
which denied clemency for Troy Anthony
Davis: Albert Murray (
Vice Chairman),
Robert E. Keller, L. Gale Buckner,
James E. Donald (Chairman), and
Terry Barnard.

During an interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! NAACP president Ben Jealous said the prison warden, Carl Humphrey, had "stonewalled the media from speaking to Troy Davis," and he had prevented CNN from speaking with an incarcerated witness. Jealous said that, while speaking to him, he said, "You know, there's another side to all this," and went on to tell him that he had been in law enforcement when Mark MacPhail was murdered. Jealous said he became aware while speaking with Humphrey that "there was this chilling notion that 'we're gonna get it this time, we're gonna do it this time." (See Democray Now! 6-hour live broadcast from Troy Davis Execution: Did Georgia execute an innocent man?, 297:48). This was the fourth time Troy Davis had received an execution date. According to Jealous, Warden Humphrey intended it to be his last, and for him not to leave his Death Row alive.

A Troy Davis Memorial Service in New Orleans

The funeral for Troy Davis was held in Savannah on Saturday, October 1, which was declared by Amnesty International as the Day of Remembrance for Troy Davis. The Louisiana Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty held an interfaith memorial service in New Orleans at St. Luke's Episcopal Church. As Rosanne Adderly, Tulane Professor of African American history and LCADP member, explained during the planning of the event, the church has the only stained glass window of Martin Luther King, and its Gaudet Hall, Dr. Adderly explained, is named after Mother Frances Joseph Gaudet, an Episcopalian saint  who devoted her life in the early twentieth century to providing education and social services to African American youth of New Orleans, a calling she was compelled to follow after seeing young people "treated as discarded lives in the New Orleans city jail."  

The program began with Peter Nu's playing on the grand piano Billy Taylor's "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free." If you're not familiar with this beautiful tune, here's Nina Simone singing it:

Rosanne Adderly gave opening remarks before introducing each speaker, first of which was Rev. Kevin Johnson of St. Luke's, who explained how shortly after Rosanne had told him that he had been called to allow St. Luke's to host the Troy Davis memorial program, he turned on his music player, which unexpectedly and fortuitously began theme (by Elmer Bernstein) from the film To Kill a Mockingbird.

Rev. Johnson compared Troy Davis to Jesus, pointing out parallels that had been evoked for many, although few had dared to give voice to them publicly. Georgia State Board of Pardons and Parole, Butts County Superior Court justices, and the US Supreme Court justices had each in turn condemned Troy Davis, who was, beyond the shadow of a doubt for many and almost to most people, innocent; each had, like Pontius Pilate, washed its hands of the case. But even at the end, Troy Davis, like Jesus in his final hours, comforted his supporters who had become followers of him and his family to end the death penalty. Like Jesus, Troy Davis comforted his supporters and followers, and, if he didn't say the exact words in his forgiveness of his executioners and asking for God's blessings for them, he was in essence saying, "Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do."
Minister Willie Mohammed of Nation of Islam New Orleans told the Parable of the Starfish, in which a wise man comes upon a youth on the beach who was throwing starfish, which had been stranded on the sand by the withdrawn tide, back into the surf. "There are thousands of starfish, and only one of you," the wise man told the boy. "What difference can you make?" Undeterred, the youth tossed another starfish into the sea, and said, "I saved that one." The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles, Minister Mohammed told us, doesn't understand that life is sacred, and that as awful as it was for one life to be takenthat of Mark MacPhailtaking another life is not justice.

LCADP member Calvin Duncan, who had been wrongfully incarcerated in Angola, Louisiana State Penitentiary, for over 20 years, explained how difficult it is to fight wrongful conviction, because "the laws are so tight," and the "gatekeepers" maintain a conviction, even if perjured testimonies had been given and the defense was too inadequate to expose it in cross examination. He told the story of how he had been mistakenly identified as the perpetrator of a murder in New Orleans, had an inadequate defense, and spent years in prison because he refused to confess to a crime he had not committed. The laws are so tight, he said, that, unless there is a constitutional issue, evidence of innocence is not enough to have a conviction overturned. The hurdles are so high to prove innocence that it takes a superhuman to make the final hurdle. It was because he came to terms with this realization, and a DA and judges acknowledged his innocence and assisted him, that he made his way out of prison. As a paralegal he had worked with prisoners on Death Row at Angola. "If our legislators would take a tour of Death Row and see who's there," he said, "I feel sure they would be opposed to the death penalty." 
The poet Delia Tomino Nakayama read the chorus at the end of The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles' Philoctetes, by Seamus Heaney to which Larry Cox had alluded a week earlier, as Peter Nu, accompanied her with improvisations on the piano:  

Poet Delia Tomino Nakayama
Human beings suffer. 
They torture one another.
They get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.
History says, Don't hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge,
Believe that a farther shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles and healing wells.
Call miracle self-healing,
The utter self-revealing
Double-take of feeling.
If there's fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky
That means someone is hearing
The outcry and the birth-cry
Of new life at its term.
It means once in a lifetime
That justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.

Prayers, Meditations, and Action

Earlier on October 1 in Savannah, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! had interviewed Dick Gregory, who had eulogized Troy Davis at his funeral, at which time he announced that he would begin that night a liquid fast that would last through next September 21. He doesn't expect others to fast with him, he said, but he asked for people to pray or meditate with him every day at noon (their time) for the end of the death penalty in the United States. 

Many years ago my favorite Roman Catholic priestan Irish one, in facttold me that the purpose of prayer was to make us aware of what we could do to remedy the subject of our prayer. We might ask ourselves, as we pray and meditate on ending the death penalty in the United States, how we might join and sustain "the longed-for tidal wave of justice," so that it will soon rise up, so that, finally, hope and history rhyme.

Thirty-four US states have the death penalty, and it must be abolished in each state, or at least, according to Ben Jealous, in ten more states to show the Supreme Court that the death penalty is not only cruel, but unusual, punishment.

Those who reside in an abolition state can join a state affiliate of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP). You can look up your state's affiliate here. Louisianians can join the efforts of the Louisiana Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (LCADP). October has been designated by Amnesty International as Death Penalty Awareness Month, and by the Roman Catholic Church as Respect Life Month. LCADP has posted the following events thus far scheduled for this month. Check back at the website for updates, and join LCADP to receive event updates and action alerts.

  • Pax Christi Peace Liturgy — Oct 7, 2011, 6:30 pm
    First Unitarian Universalist Church, 5212 S. Claiborne Ave, New Orleans
    Featuring Sister Helen Prejean.
  • Voices from Death Row — Oct 9, 2011, 5:00 pm
    RAE House, 1212 St Bernard Ave
    Presented by Resurrection After Exoneration.
  • World Day Against the Death Penalty — Oct 10, 2011, 10:00 am
  • Voices from Death Row — Oct 10, 2011, 6:00 pm
    Loyola University, Broadway Activities Center in room 202
    Hosted by the Loyola Public Interest Law Student Group.
  • Screening of Zero Percent — Oct 15, 2011, 1:30 pm
    New Orleans Film Festival, Second Line Stages

Coverage by Democracy Now! of Troy Davis's case, the vigil at the prison on September 21, and the funeral in Savannah on October 1 can be found here. To learn more about the case, see "Where is the justice for me? The Case of Troy Davis, Facing Execution in Georgia."
Delia Labarre
October 5, 2011

New Orleans

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