The Troy Davis Book Club: Three Years After His Execution, a Movement to Resurrect His Story

Across the country, readers—including those on death row—gather to share the Davis family's story and the hope of putting an end to the killing.
Davis Family

The Davis family in May 2011. Photo courtesy of the family.

When Jen Marlowe started working on I Am Troy Davis, she didn't think she'd be writing it alone.

Marlowe spent years conducting intimate interviews with the family of Troy Davis, an African-American man from Savannah, Ga., whose controversial death sentence sparked a massive, 20-year, unsuccessful campaign to exonerate him.

He wasn't allowed to write a book himself, but Marlowe, through letters and visits, would slip him questions about his case and his childhood. In that way, she said, "he would write pages and pages so I could bring in his perspective."

Marlowe always imagined publishing the book together with Troy and Martina Davis-Correia, his sister, soulmate, and champion.

But by the time she started writing, both of her collaborators had died—Troy, by lethal injection on September 21, 2011; and Martina just over two months later, from cancer.

I Am Troy Davis Book Cover

Join the book club and get a copy of the book here.

Soon after Troy's funeral, Martina had found an unopened letter from him, urging her to finish the book. And for two months until her own death, she and Marlowe had begun cobbling the narrative together.

Marlowe, a longtime human rights activist, filmmaker, and author, found herself responsible for completing the project. She holed up for three months on her own, sifting through years of photographs and notes.

The story goes like this: In 1989, white police officer Mark MacPhail was fatally shot outside a convenience store in the racially charged city of Savannah. Troy, who had earlier left the scene, remembered hearing the shots. But he was shocked when he was convicted of firing them, based solely on the testimonies of a few witnesses (all but one of whom later recanted).

For more than 20 years, the Davis family—and their advocates around the world—exhausted every avenue to overturn the sentence and free their brother, son, uncle, and friend.

Troy and Martina, who became a nationally recognized advocate for her brother, found themselves at the center of a movement to expose the recklessness of capital punishment. Their journey culminated in a worldwide outcry and hundreds-strong vigil outside the Georgia penitentiary where Troy was executed, all of them chanting, "I am Troy Davis."

This Sunday, on the third anniversary of Troy's death, Marlowe, the Davis family, and thousands of readers are launching a community book club. For the next three weeks, from September 21 until October 10, World Day Against the Death Penalty, groups around the country will gather to read I Am Troy Davis. The idea was developed in partnership with the NAACP, Amnesty International, and Equal Justice USA with the hope that diverse groups of readers confront difficult feelings about racism, executions, and the criminal justice system.

In the three years since Davis' death, two states have abolished capital punishment (Maryland and Connecticut), while two others have placed a moratorium on executions. Meanwhile, eight death row prisoners have been exonerated, and botched executions in Oklahoma, Arizona, and Ohio received extensive media coverage, leaving many citizens questioning the practice of killing as punishment.

Marlowe hopes that deep engagement with the Davis family's experience will bring the issue some much-needed empathy. "Through book discussions all over the country," she said, "thousands of people will be exposed to Troy and the Davis family's story, to their struggle, and to the human price that we all pay with the existence of the death penalty."

No one understands this price better than a core group of readers currently on death row. Marlowe reached out to prisoners around the country to invite them to participate in the book club, and she hopes those on the inside and outside will share their hopes, grief, and insights.

Here are a few of the responses she's received so far:

Today...September 9...will make it 16 years that I've been on Death Row. The day I turned myself in (like Troy did) to clear my name. Reading the book reminds me of what I'm still going through and of how my family is still here for me. Like I said, Ms Marlowe, I'm a very blessed man.

Troy was a blessed man too, but what REALLY caught my attention was that throughout his ordeal he was still able to have contact visits with his family. THAT made me both feel really good for him and jealous too.

Here in Texas, Death Row doesn't allow contacts visits. After reading your book and then going back to look at all the photos, I won't lie to you, I shed some tears because I didn't get to hug my mother before she passed. My grandparents, some cousins, and friends either. I just sat here thinking about hugging my father and shed more tears.

I just visited with my sister Delia and told her about this, and she cried! But, they were good tears.

—Louis C. Perez, "Big Lou," on death row in Texas

Dear Jen,
I received your letter along with a copy of the book I Am Troy Davis.  Thank you so very much for sending me a copy...my tears are flowing just from reading the first several pages. I feel the words with the depth from personal experience of being on death row and completely innocent. Combine that with the current situation I'm enduring concerning my best friend's upcoming execution, well, let's just say I had to put the book down because the emotions are too overwhelming. ...

Darlie L. Routier, "Innocent on Texas death row," whose best friend, Lisa Coleman, was executed Wednesday.

Dear Ms. Marlowe,
Thank you very much for your letter and your invitation to participate in discussion about Troy. The honor would be all mine. I accept.

Without a doubt, i remember Troy's plight. ... I take Troy's execution personal as I do to all those who have been murdered by the state.

I always circulate books around me to those willing to learn. That was one thing that we did on death row constantly. As these newer generations come into play I find that more and more of these youngsters know very little about their history, politics, and the powers that influence their daily lives. That's very sad in this day of technology. Ones like myself try to pas on the torch where I can. I'll continue to do that.

... Thank you again for allowing me to participate, because the dream for every prisoner is to be a part of the conversations that matter.

Take care,
Sincerely,
—Kenneth Foster Jr., Texas inmate who was formerly on death row

The conversations that matter here are big: a justice system gone egregiously wrong, and the deep pain of endemic racism that links Troy's story to those of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, and countless others.

But they are also small, and full of heart: The Davises met every weekend for 20 years, holding hands in a prayer circle until Troy was forbidden physical contact in his last years; he dropped out of high school and studied for a GED at night so he could care for a little sister diagnosed with multiple sclerosis; while in prison, he crocheted outfits for his baby nephew, De'Jaun; on his envelopes from death row, he wrote "Mr. Troy A. Davis" in the return address to remind the system of his human dignity.

Kimberly Davis, who in the start of 2011 had Troy, Martina, and her mother to look up to, had lost them all by the end of the year. Her mother, Virginia, died just months before Troy's execution; Martina died two months after it. All in the space of six months.

In their final days, both Troy and Martina charged her with continuing the fight so that, as Troy said on the day he died, it will make "a difference for someone coming behind me."

We talked to Kimberly last year about Troy's legacy in the Davis family today.

The Troy Davis Book Club photo from Jen Marlowe

Readers in Atlanta celebrate the launch of I Am Troy Davis with the Davis family and author Jen Marlowe.

Christa Hillstrom: This book was so gripping, so moving, for an outsider like me to read. What was it like for you to go back through these decades and relive them?

Kimberly Davis: Just reading the book, it's like reliving that past all over again. I had to catch myself several times, just crying, putting the book down, picking it back up. I couldn't just sit there.

The book brought back a lot of painful memories... Before [2011], everything was so real. Everybody was here—my mom, my brother, my sister. We were all looking for a happy ending to come out of this. But you know how corrupt our justice system is. That was so hurtful.

But my brother told us he didn't want us to cry. He wanted us to hold our heads up high. Because it [injustice] didn't start with him, and it wasn't going to end with him.

Hillstrom: One of the things I found so powerful is that it did have substantial things to say about the injustice of the system, but all of that is supporting the incredibly compelling, relatable story of a family and the community that wrapped around them. How was the book received in that community?

Davis: When different people read the book, even people who never met Troy personally, but they were pen pals, they noticed that everyone usually portrays someone in prison or death row like, you think there's a monster. But here it captures that Troy showed so much compassion. At the funeral, his pen pals came from all over the world.

One woman said that Troy used to send birthday cards to her whole family. And when she told him her mom was sick, he sent something. It wasn't just that he wrote to individual people—he wrote to their entire families.

A lot of people said they were writing to Troy to uplift him. But they were uplifted by him.

Hillstrom: Seems like your whole family was that way—Martina, your mother. The book really dwells on the role faith plays in your family. You used to meet every weekend for a prayer circle, touching the glass when you weren't allowed to hold hands.

Davis: The warden started taking away contact visits. I remember going and my niece Kiersten putting her hand to the fence between us and she would stick her finger in just to touch him. She would try to put her lips up to the fence. She was only three years old. She couldn't understand why she was not allowed to touch him.

Hillstrom: I can imagine that a lot of people going through what you went through in 2011, losing three family members, might feel faith wasn't working for them. But you feel the opposite.

Davis: When Troy had actually first gotten his death sentence, my mom said that burden was too heavy for her to bear. She said she turned it over to God. When she turned it over to God, she said she didn't feel the heavy burden on her chest anymore. He told her it was going to be all right.

Troy told my mom before he got arrested that he was baptized. He got baptized again in jail. He said, "I've already given my life over to God, so the state can't take anything from me and there's nothing else they can do to me."

Hillstrom: With all those years in prison, his faith must have matured a lot.

Davis: Yes. We used to have Bible study on Tuesday nights. Troy had it on Wednesday. When we finished Troy would call me and ask me for the scriptures we went over. At one point we taped our lessons so I was able to send them. And he used to send me Bible trivia questions. He would say, "When you get here, we're gonna discuss this." He became quite a scholar.

His favorite scripture was Hebrews 11:1: "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."

Hillstrom: Troy had such an influence on your childhood.

Davis: Oh yes. When I was 15, I was diagnosed with MS and I was totally paralyzed for almost a year. The doctors told my mom I would not see my sixteenth birthday.

But then I did. And then they said I would never walk again.

Troy disenrolled himself school during the daytime so he could work during the day and help out with the bills, and then go to school at night.

My mom would come home and he would leave his whole paycheck there for her.

After I got out of the hospital, I was not able to go back to my high school because it wasn’t wheelchair accessible.  Troy would take me to school, go to work, come home, take me to the hospital for two hours for physical therapy, go back to work, then go to school at night.

I had in my mind what the doctor told me, that I would never be able to walk around.

One day when I was at home, I was in the wheelchair and Troy said, "You’re going to have to get up out this wheelchair and walk."

We came from therapy and he brought me in the yard with my wheelchair and he gave me my crutches. He said, "Stand up." I got out of the wheelchair.

He moved the wheelchair from behind me and I said, "What are you doing?"

He said, "If you want your wheelchair, you're going to have to walk to it."

I said, "Troy, stop playing."

He said, "You want it, you have to walk to it."

I stood there crying, calling for my mom. She came to the door and said, "Troy what are you doing?"

He said, "Mama, she can’t continue to sit in this wheelchair feeling sorry for herself."

He told me, "If you want the wheelchair and if you want your crutches, you're gonna have to walk to it."

I took one step and then another… and from then on I was walking.

By January of '88 I was walking more and more, with my wheelchair. Troy said, "You have to make a New Year's resolution"—to walk across the stage and accept my diploma when I graduated. Not to roll in my wheelchair.

When I walked across the stage when I graduated, at the end of the stage was Troy. If it wasn’t for him—I had already given up on myself—I would have still been in that wheelchair. I always called him my hero.

Hillstrom: As I was reading your story, as heartbreaking as it is, I also found myself thinking—what a blessing, what a joy, to have that family. How do you carry them with you today?

Davis: My niece, Kiersten, is five now. On all of their birthdays we go to their graves and we always have balloons. We make sure she has a cupcakes.  The cemetery is close to our house and she likes to go there a lot.

Last year, she told me, "Auntie, takes me to go see Titi, Granny, and Uncle Troy." Kiersten had just graduated from pre-K, and De'Jaun [Troy's nephew, Martina's son] had just graduated high school. She said, "I want to tell Titi and Granny and Uncle Troy that Dede and I graduated."

So I took her to the cemetery. I got out the car, and she said, "I don’t want you to come with me. I want to go talk to them by myself."

Their graves are in the middle of a field. She got out and ran halfway down the field and turned around and waved, and then she ran the other half the field and stopped at the headstone. She bent down—she always brushes off the headstone—and she’ll kiss the headstone, and she always says a prayer when she first gets there.

When she got back, she said "Ok now you can go."

I asked, "What did you tell them?"

She said, "I told Titi and Granny and Uncle Troy that me and Dede graduated and were gonna have a grauation party together."

For more information about participating in the Community Reading Group, click here.