Thoughts on the death of Troy Davis

28 September 2011 by Jennifer

No facts here that haven’t already been reported elsewhere, just my own reflections.

Troy Davis was killed, executed, in the US on 21 September, despite enormous and widely-held doubts about whether he actually did the crime he was convicted of. For a few days after his death, this was in my mind a lot.

OK, I wasn’t there at the scene in 1989 when the crime went down, so I don’t absolutely know what happened then. But from what I’ve read about it, I don’t see any reason to believe that he was guilty. And there are other people apart from Amnesty who have gone into it in proper depth and come to the conclusion that the crime was actually done by someone else (see article); if despite all appearances he did do it, it’s certainly not proved to the average reasonable person’s satisfaction.

I’m not convinced anyway that it’s a good idea to kill people in the name of the state. But one of the best practical arguments against it is there’s no going back later if the person later turns out to be innocent. So you’d think even the people in favour of it would try to make sure that wouldn’t happen. And yet, despite enormous numbers of people saying “wait – this isn’t right”, the excecution was carried out; he was killed.


So I was thinking about Troy himself. I got an email from Amnesty after his death, in which he’s quoted as saying “I’m in good spirits and I’m prayerful and at peace.” I hope that remained true for him.

And I was thinking about his family and friends. How must that feel? to lose your brother or someone you were close to, in that way and despite years of your own struggle for the justice that would have saved his life? Can’t imagine the pain of that. (Troy’s parents both died during the years he was on Death Row. Troy’s sister, Martina, said her mother “died of a broken heart.”)

Then I was also thinking about all the thousands of people who’ve become aware of the case, and have contributed in some little way to the campaign for justice. For some people, it will be one sadness among many, one injustice among many they’re already aware of. But I was thinking especially of the younger ones, who really believed that Troy’s death couldn’t happen if enough people spoke out. For some people – maybe especially the ones who live in the US – this will be the crushing blow to their faith in the system and the world will never seem the same again. I hope it won’t also be a crushing blow to their faith in their own powers to make a difference.

And there’s the jurors from the original trial: “four of the jurors who originally found him guilty have signed statements in support of Mr. Davis.” Imagine that: you helped form the guilty verdict, now you’re sure it’s wrong, and yet someone’s died because of it. Coming to terms with that… not easy. You might feel very bitter about being put in that position, or feel that you had a death on your conscience.

But I’ve got to admit, I’ve probably spent the most time thinking about the people on the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole. These are the people who ultimately had the responsibility of deciding whether Troy Davis should live or die. What must they have been thinking?

Trying to imagine that… so much commitment to a path that wasn’t underpinned by facts or justice. What must they have thought they were upholding?


Something that came to mind: a conversation I was having with a friend recently about a software project which had gone live with loads of stuff not really working, and fallen over an embarrassing lot in its first days.

As I listened to the story, my mind was sort of boggling at the detachment from reality implied in the contractors’ thinking, to have convinced themselves it was all gonna work fine on the day. And my friend explained it along the lines of: Well, I think if they’d begun to admit to themselves what the signs were pointing to, it would’ve been a huge “OH SHIT” that they didn’t want to deal with, so they managed to block it out with lots of positive thinking like “It’ll be OK, we’ll sort it out”.

And then I was thinking of someone quite familiar to long-time readers of this blog, Mr Graham Badman. Here we are Mr Badman, telling you about our lives. But anything we say that’s inconvenient to your beliefs, somehow that part doesn’t go in.

And then I suddenly found myself searching for another recent memory which faintly rang a bell – “what was it? something in that book of Doris Lessing’s…”

To digress: A thoughtful, sometimes sad, book which I read recently and enjoyed is Doris Lessing‘s African Laughter. The author grew up in what was then Southern Rhodesia. For some years, she was banned by the (white) government from coming back into the country. Then, after the country became Zimbabwe, she was allowed back, and the book is autobiographical accounts of four visits between 1982 and 1992.

The ability to learn

This was the bit I was half remembering:

Research into the workings of the mind shows that a percentage of people are incapable of changing their minds, no matter what the evidence. If they have been imprinted at some point in their lives with, let’s say, the information that all cats are black, then forever after they will say that all cats are black, even if white cats are paraded before them with labels saying White Cats. (p276)

I don’t know whether that’s literally true. (When someone claims “research shows” anything whatsoever, I find it safer not to assume the statement has any content about the actual research! though it may tell you something about the opinion or agenda of the speaker. Having sight of the research itself is sometimes a bit more convincing.)

But as an emotional truth: yes, it certainly seems as though some people operate like that.

Later in the book, DL writes about political ideas persisting in that way:

An historian, the father of Rhodesian-Zimbabwean history, told a class in the university that he had made a mistake in certain interpretations. The students would have none of it. ‘But that’s not what we were taught.’ ‘But I’m telling you, what you were taught is wrong. I wrote that history and now I know parts of it are wrong.’ But it was no use: what they knew was history. (p401)

I suspect every human being is prone to that kind of error to some degree; but some are more so than others. If there’s hardwiring for the trait, then it may be an excuse for the people with the trait, but it’s no excuse for anyone who then gives those people the power of life and death.

I don’t really believe that’s the problem with the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole, though. I mean, I don’t know them, but I can’t help guessing that their thinking was maybe a bit more like the contractors with their OH SHIT.

Hanging out in imagination with the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole

I don’t know. The whole thing just somehow caught my imagination. These five people… what were they thinking?

How much of it was loyalty to their colleagues who made the earlier decisions? What pressures were they under?

Did any of them doubt in their hearts that Troy Davis was guilty? Did they all manage to convince themselves completely that he was? that all the other people who’d looked into the case and come down on the “unsafe conviction” side were simply deluded? Did they feel something, consciously or unconsciously, like “If we admit we were wrong this time, we’ll be opening the floodgates”? – to what? to people questioning other miscarriages of justice? Will this decision help or hinder their careers, and if so how?

What part did racism play? How much of it was a belief that Black lives matter less? A report sponsored by the American Bar Association in 2007 concluded that one-third of African-American death row inmates in Philadelphia would have received sentences of life imprisonment if they had not been African-American. Was some part of it “Well if he didn’t do that crime he probably did another one?”

Was the Board unanimous and if not, who dissented? (The Board is 1 white woman, 2 white men and 2 African American men.) I wonder how the pressures were different on each of them.

What are the parallels with, or differences from, state killings of white people? How often do white people get executed despite widespread belief in their innocence, and what commonalities exist in terms of class and income background?

I wonder how many previous deaths or prison sentences each of the Board people had seen where doubt remained and they had to squash it down to get on with their jobs?

What language did they use among themselves? What were their metaphors? Did they speak of “holding the line” or “showing strength” or “sending a clear message” or “upholding principles”?

I wonder did any of them ever say in discussions with each other that they thought he was perhaps innocent? Did one of them perhaps ever convey to another, not in so many words but so they both understood, that it was a bad business and they both knew it and felt bad about it, but it could never be said?

Or were they really truly all 100% convinced that they were right and the rest of the world was wrong?

This is how I have been hanging out in imagination with the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole.

In closing

Troy Davis, shortly before his death:

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.

Amnesty International page with facts about the US death penalty

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