Seeking Justice on Death Row
By now you may know about Troy Anthony Davis, the 39-year-old death row inmate from Georgia who received a temporary stay of execution from the U.S. Supreme Court last week.
Nearly 18 years ago, Davis was convicted of the murder of police officer Mark MacPhail. The crime took place outside a Burger King, and no DNA or other physical evidence was found. Davis was convicted solely on the testimony of nine witnesses. But since the August 1989 shooting, seven of these witnesses have recanted. Several people have said that one of those who testified at Davis's trial, Sylvester "Redd" Coles, has admitted to them that he was the killer.
My journey with Troy, his sister, Martina Correia, and other members of his family began shortly after reading an article that reported his imminent execution in July 2007. As I read more, I became more troubled by it all: the witnesses' recantations; Troy's constant professions of innocence; and the support from so many -- including Pope Benedict XVI, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Sister Helen Prejean.
Last fall, I decided to dedicate a semester to Troy by having my students write letters to lawmakers and the media. It was incredible for my students to learn who this man was and why he has been on death row for nearly half his life. These students were not majoring in law. They were communications majors, and they learned the value and power of words.
During and after the semester, I learned more about Troy and his case. I flew to Georgia in November 2007 to hear oral arguments at the Georgia Supreme Court. In a 4 to 3 decision, the court rejected Troy's plea for justice. That decision in itself showed the reality: The court was split; thus, there was something troubling about this case. So many unanswered questions. How was the police investigation handled? Why was there no physical evidence? How can new testimony not be considered from witnesses who say they were pressed to lie under oath? Why is no one being held accountable for this?
And why was an execution scheduled to take place before a higher court could meet to review the case?
The semester came to an end -- sadly for the students and myself. But the students were surprised and grateful when Martina Correia walked into the classroom on the last day to thank each of them for their help on behalf of her brother. The class may have ended, but not our passion for Troy's story. We continued to follow the case, and one of my students remained close to Troy, as did I.
And then it all began to unravel. On Sept. 12, nearly a year after this class, Troy's life was put in the hands of the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles. Nearly 30 minutes after a hearing, the board ruled against granting Troy clemency.
On Tuesday, I flew to Jackson, Ga., to see my friend Troy one last time. In a room surrounded by close friends and family, Martina escorted us to the small caged area where her brother was talking to five or six people. He eloquently spoke of justice and how there is still so much work to be done to help others like him. He asked us to pray for the judicial system, for the MacPhail family and for the U.S. Supreme Court. He spoke of his mother, who was near him -- and the struggles she has endured throughout the years seeing her son go through this. And he spoke of being free one day, and all the things he wants to do, such as helping young people take the right path in life.
When my time came to say goodbye to Troy, he thanked me for everything my students had done, and I told him that I hoped he would find the love and happiness he deserves. I told him that I had asked God to keep him safe, that I was honored to have met him and that he had changed my life.
Then the Supreme Court granted its stay. Tomorrow, the court is scheduled to meet to decide whether to hear Troy's appeal.
When I returned from Georgia last night, there was a letter from Troy there. I want to share his words:
"P.S. Please thank your students for all their encouraging letters and unwavering support. Their letters touched my heart, and it's amazing to hear that I inspire them. . . . Thank you all and may God keep us all safe to do all we can to change the world, one state at a time."
-- Gemma Puglisi
The writer is an assistant professor at the School of Communication at American University.