Standing with Troy Davis in His Final Days
In mid-October, I received a letter from my friend, Troy Davis. I had just returned to my home in Seattle after nearly three months on the road, and, as I sifted through a pile of bank statements and junk mail, there was Troy’s letter, dated July 27 and waiting for me all this time. I sat shivering on my front porch, though the late afternoon sunlight was still warm, and held the envelope, staring for several minutes at the neat, almost childlike cursive penmanship of my name and address. I was unprepared to be receiving this communication, and uncertain if I could bring myself to open it. My friend Troy Davis was dead now. He had been executed by the state of Georgia three weeks earlier.
I first learned about Troy in July 2007. Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman was interviewing Troy’s sister Martina, who spoke about her struggle to save his life, as well as her fight for her own life. In 1991, Troy had been convicted and sentenced to death for the 1989 murder of Savannah police officer Mark MacPhail. In 2001, Martina had been diagnosed with stage-four breast cancer and was given six months to live. When I heard her speaking on Democracy Now!, Martina had already survived six years beyond her prognosis and Troy had just survived Georgia’s first attempt to kill him. The execution had been stayed less than 24 hours before it was to take place.
Martina was clearly a force of nature—her feisty, indomitable spirit came through strongly over the interview. I wanted to learn more about the brother whose life she was fighting for. I found Amnesty International’s report about Troy online and read about the specifics of his case, my incredulity growing with each new bit of information. No physical evidence linked Troy to the murder, and seven out of nine key witnesses had recanted their testimonies. Multiple witnesses signed affidavits asserting that they had been pressured by the police into saying that Troy was the shooter. Other individuals had come forth implicating Sylvester “Red” Coles—who happened to be the very man who gave Troy’s name to the police following the murder. There seemed to be no case left against Troy Davis, who had steadfastly proclaimed his innocence. How could he be slated for execution? Wasn’t the death penalty supposed to be reserved for the most certain, most egregious, of cases?
I found a website with Troy’s address in prison and jotted him a card expressing solidarity. He wrote back a few weeks later, and our friendship grew through a steady correspondence over the next year. I told him about my work as a filmmaker, and he suggested that I make a film about Martina. He told me stories about his teenaged nephew, De’Jaun and newborn niece, Kiersten, and I shared with him my adoration for my own young nieces and nephew. He wanted to know more about my work, so I sent him a copy of my first book, Darfur Diaries: Stories of Survival. In every letter he expressed his optimism that he would one day walk free and when he did, he would work side by side with Martina fighting injustice. He would take her to every one of her doctor’s appointments, he wrote, and sit by her side through each chemotherapy treatment. Though always upbeat, small details of life on the row crept into the letters. He wrote of air so thick and steamy, he could cut it with a knife. He mentioned a cockroach that dropped from nowhere onto his arm.
In September, 2008, Georgia announced once again its intention to kill Troy. This was now Troy’s second execution date. As the hours and minutes marched towards 7 p.m.—the time that Georgia had determined to put Troy to death, I checked for updates obsessively, glued to my computer and phone. How could I focus on any other work when I knew my friend was in a tiny cell next to the execution chamber? How could I do anything at all, when Troy’s family, having already said goodbye to him, were waiting in the prison yard, and his lawyer was sequestered in the death house, preparing to watch his client die?
Thankfully, ninety minutes before that scheduled execution, I got a call from another supporter. The U.S. Supreme Court had granted Troy a stay. I sat with the news for a minute, absorbing it. He was safe for a time, but he wouldn’t be for long. It was not enough to write Troy letters in prison, or to sign and circulate petitions. I had to do more, all that was in my power, so that Troy could come home. He had a teenage nephew to guide and advise. He had a baby niece to bounce on his knee.
I did not know that in the near future, Troy and I would speak over the phone on a sometimes daily basis, developing nicknames for one another and cracking jokes. I did not realize that I would visit him several times on death row, where he and his family somehow managed to transform concrete blocks, iron bars, barbed wire and guard towers into warmth and humanity. I had no idea that three years later, nearly to the day, on September 21, 2011, I would be standing with Troy’s family and a crowd of other friends and supporters in the prison yard in Jackson, Ga., as the state of Georgia did what it had tried and failed to do on three previous occasions: strap Troy onto a gurney, insert IVs into his arm and inject toxins into his bloodstream that first numbed him, then paralyzed him, then stopped his heart.
The tragedies were set in motion months before September 21. On March 28, the US Supreme Court denied Troy’s final appeal, ending hope for relief through the court system. Newspapers carried headlines about Troy’s execution date being imminent. The March 31 editorial in the Savannah Morning News, which came to the Davis’s home each morning, opened with, “It’s time to stop playing the broken record known as the Troy Anthony Davis appeals process.” In other words, it was time, already, for the execution to go forward. On April 12, Troy’s mother Virginia sat down in her living room, slumped over in her chair, and departed this world. There was no discernible cause of death. Martina said she died of heartbreak. Her mother was unable to endure a fourth execution date. (Troy’s third execution date, in October 2008, came within three days before it was stayed.) The funeral was both a tribute to Virginia and a call to action. Reverend Dr. Warnock, the pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church where Martin Luther King Jr. once preached and an active part of the campaign to save Troy’s life, delivered an impassioned eulogy. The best way to honor Virginia’s life, Reverend Warnock said, was to fight for Troy’s.
I was in the Savannah airport the day after the funeral with Laura Moye, Amnesty International USA’s death penalty abolition campaign director. “I’m not going to another Davis funeral,” she said with steely resolve as we mounted the escalator leading to our respective gates. She didn’t have to explain her words. She had been working with Martina for a dozen years and had been a leader in Amnesty’s campaign for Troy for the past four. Martina’s health was more precarious than it had been since her diagnosis ten years ago. Troy’s execution date could be set any day.
I woke up every morning the summer of 2011, trying to remember why I was feeling such dread and then, remembering, opened my laptop to check if Troy’s execution warrant had been signed. No warrant meant I had at least one more day to organize. I could reach out to more lawyers and clergy, asking them to add their names to Amnesty’s sign-on letters. I could make another video, I could write another article.
Two execution warrants were signed in Georgia over the summer. I was disgusted with myself for feeling relief that it was other human beings—not Troy—who would be killed. According to the AP’s Greg Bluestein, during the June 23, 2011 execution of Roy Blankenship, “Blankenship jerked his head toward his left arm and began rapidly blinking. He then lurched toward his right arm, lunging twice with his mouth wide open as if he were gasping for air. A minute later, he pushed his head forward while mouthing inaudible words. His eyes never closed.” I read the lurid description with hope that maybe, just maybe, this botched execution would stop Georgia’s machinery of death before it reached my friend.
As the summer wore on, the anxiety dug deeper. It was with something almost like relief that I greeted the September 6th text message from Kim Davis (Troy and Martina’s sister): “They just set Troy a date for Sept 21st.” At least now, the waiting was over. At least now, we could spring into action.
The next two weeks were a haze of organizing frenzy, with Amnesty offices in DC and Atlanta serving as the hub. Support cascaded in from every corner of the globe. We were going to stop this execution. Any other outcome was unimaginable.
Troy’s clemency hearing in front of the Georgia Board of Pardons & Parole was on September 19. No decision was announced that day. Laura and I were in the car outside the Davis’s hotel in Atlanta the morning of September 20 when she got the text message from a member of his legal team: “Clemency denied.” Laura ran into the hotel to tell the Davis family. An hour later, Wende Gozan-Brown (also with Amnesty) and I were on our way to Jackson, GA. We had learned minutes earlier that we were on the list Troy had compiled the previous week—the twenty-some people who could visit him on his final days, and say goodbye. Preparations for the execution were already underway. SWAT team guards lined the perimeter of the prison. Our names were verified at a check-point set up at the entrance. Wende and I sat outside for an hour as the prison ran a security check on us.
By the time our security clearance was finally processed, we had less than thirty minutes with Troy. We were separated by thick Plexiglass preventing any physical contact, and had to use phones to communicate, allowing us to speak only one at a time. Troy’s words were rushed. I had the sense he had worked out in advance what he wanted to say. He appreciated all I had been doing, he told me, especially the videos—he had heard about them from many people. He had been shocked to learn that clemency was denied, but he was still fighting, and needed me to keep fighting too. There was almost a businesslike quality to his voice. Troy, of course, had been through this before—he had said goodbye to friends and family on three previous occasions. No, of course, it wasn’t over, I assured him, and yes, of course I would still be fighting.
“Send my love to your nieces and nephew,” Troy said. There was much more I wanted to say to him. But there was no more time.
The next day, Laura and I joined the 150 or so protesters inside a roped off area of the prison yard, surrounded by media on one side and armed guards on the other three. 450 more supporters were at a church across the street with the family for a press conference and prayer vigil. The family would come to the prison grounds just before 7 p.m. As the Hail Mary appeals for a stay were rejected, first by the County Court, then the Georgia Supreme Court, a helicopter circled overhead, its large blades slicing the air loudly. This was no press helicopter. Kung Li, also with Amnesty, sent me text messages from the press conference and vigil:
4:01 p.m. “Martina sounded strong. She was magnificent. Press literally fell over themselves trying to get a better shot.”
5:48 p.m. “The place is packed. And pissed off. And joyous all the same time. Absolutely amazing.”
6:06 p.m. “Five full busloads of students on their feet with Ed DuBose. (president of NAACP’s Georgia State Conference) Oh wow he’s on fire.”
6:23 p.m. “Whole church walking up the hill, two by two in silence.”
6:26 p.m. “Sending off the family into the prison grounds.”
Inside the prison ground, the protesters were angry and chanting. “No justice! No peace!” But as the Davis family entered the roped-off pen, with De’Jaun pushing Martina in a wheelchair and three-year old Kiersten crying, “I want to go home!” in her mother (Troy’s youngest sister’s) Ebony’s, arms, an astounding transformation took place. The crowd of angry, chanting protesters organically morphed into a human corridor for the Davises to walk through, profound sorrow and respect rippling down the lines. The corridor then closed itself into a circle, wrapping the family with love, song, and prayer. The SWAT chopper continued to hover overhead.
More texts from Kung Li:
6:43 p.m. “All 450 lining the Hwy. (across from the prison) NAACP asked for silence. Some chanting.”
6:44 p.m. “SWAT teams are wound up tight.”
6:59 p.m. “Half the crowd on one knee, the other half with fist in the air.”
The circle closed even tighter around the Davis family, and the praying/song rose in volume and intensity, peaking in pitch and fervor at 7 p.m.—the scheduled execution time—when a rumble began from across the highway. Within seconds, the rumble spread into a low, guttural roar and exploded into a shout: TROY GOT A STAY!
“Hold on, wait, we don’t know if it’s a stay yet!”
Ebony grabbed me, erupting into tears. “Oh Jesus! Oh Jesus!”
Chaos, elation, confusion, and tears coalesced into hard-focused prayer once we learned that there was not a stay, only a delay until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the appeal. The last vestiges of light disappeared as 7 p.m. turned to 8 and then to 9 and prayers turned into sitting, and waiting, and waiting.
Texts from Kung Li:
8:42 p.m. “Ridiculous show of force by 100+ officers. Crowd turns back to them.”
9:51 p.m. “125 CERT team officers in formation on the road.”
Martina, dignified as royalty, sat in her wheelchair in the center of the prison grounds, watching Troy’s lawyers in the far corner of the pen. She would know from their posture if news arrived and whether it was good or bad. Kiersten instructed a group of college- aged girls with moves she learned in her ballet class, at one point darting underneath the ropes outside the pen, where men with automatic rifles ringed the perimeter. I had a moment of panic—surely the guards wouldn’t hurt the little girl?
At 10:30 p.m., I turned to Laura, trying to grasp the meaning of the information that Ben Jealous of the NAACP had just imparted. The Supreme Court had rejected Troy’s request for a stay. “The execution is going to happen now, effective immediately?” Yes, Laura told me. They would begin to kill Troy, now, effective immediately.
The memories after that are disjointed:
De’Jaun and his cousin Earl, sitting together in the corner of the pen, heads bowed and silent.
A young woman grabbing me in a fierce hug. “Do I know you?” I asked, trying to see her face in the darkness. “No, but you looked like you were hurting.”
Laura getting into the center of the circle, next to Martina. “It has been a privilege and an honor to stand by this family!” Her blue eyes flashing, rage and love in her voice in equal measure.
Were they leading him to the execution chamber at this moment? Strapping him to the gurney? Was he saying his last words?
Laura put her arm around me stiffly. She had been tough as nails throughout, and needed to maintain that, for now. “Don’t crack me, Marlowe.”
It was over. I left the pen, walked up the small hill to the prison exit and hesitated, momentarily stunned by the militaristic display of over a hundred SWAT team officers. “Keep moving!” an officer barked. I crossed the highway through columns of black-clad full-on riot gear. This human corridor bore no resemblance to the one that wrapped the Davis family in its embrace just a few hours ago.
I pushed through the hundreds of protesters on the other side and sat down on the embankment, alone in the cover of shadow. I did not want anybody to see me break down.
I cried for Troy—for the Davis family—for the state of Georgia, the MacPhail family, and this country. I cried for all of us, as the helicopter circled loudly overhead, blades violently chopping the night sky.
Jen Marlowe is a filmmaker, author, human rights activist, and founder of Donkeysaddle Projects. Her books include The Hour of Sunlight: One Palestinian's Journey from Prisoner to Peacemaker, Darfur Diaries: Stories of Survival, and I Am Troy Davis.