Last Wednesday, Troy Davis was killed by lethal injection in a maximum-security prison in Georgia. Davis was convicted of killing an off-duty police officer in 1989. The case drew international attention because all but two of the non-police witnesses in the case later retracted their testimonies, and there existed barely any physical evidence; the murder weapon was never found. Throughout this case, Davis has become a martyr in candlelight vigils in cities across the United States and right here in Harvard Square, while the real victim, Officer Mark MacPhail, has been largely forgotten. We regret that our legal system has created such confusion and, in a larger sense, lost the trust and faith of the American people in its handling of this particular case.
Affidavits collected by Amnesty International paint a picture of a group of witnesses bullied, intimidated, and harassed by the Georgia state police into pinpointing Davis as the murderer. “The truth is that Troy never confessed to me or talked to me about the shooting of the police officer. I made up the confession from information I had heard on T.V. and from other inmates about the crimes,” said witness Kevin McQueen. “I told them I didn’t know anything about who shot the officer, but they kept questioning me. I was real young at that time and here they were questioning me about the murder of a police officer like I was in trouble or something,” said Monty Holmes. Besides former witnesses, proponents of staying Davis’s execution included former jurors and even former presidents.
While hundreds of others people are sentenced to death each year in the United States, this case drew attention because of the flimsiness of the evidence against Davis. It is as likely as not that, last week, America executed yet another innocent man. Regardless of Davis’s innocence or guilt, however, the fact that doubt and unease will always cloud our memory of the case is an indictment of a legal system that purports to protect the unalienable rights of man, which include the right to life. That Troy Davis isn’t even the first man put to death in the United States who may not even be guilty of the crime for which he was convicted—the name Cameron Todd Willingham should come to mind—only amplifies that indictment. If there is ever any doubt about the innocence of a person, it should go without saying that he or she should not be executed. However, it is clear that the justice system in certain states, such as Georgia, cannot be trusted to obey this maxim. Our courts are far from perfect, but the lack of faith in the American legal system that inevitably results from the execution of a dubiously guilty man whose guilt remains unproven is, in our view, the real tragedy here.
In the end, the outcry against the case, in this country at least, represented the larger struggles with racism against African-Americans still inherent in the American court system. As cited by a Pew Charitable Trust report, one in 12 black males between the ages of 18 and 64 are in prison, while one in 86 white males in the same range is. Around one in three black males can expect to be incarcerated at some point in their lives. The disparity between the rates of incarceration of men of different races, no matter what other structural or social factors are thrown into the mix, points to systemic injustice. Troy Davis may have received an unfair punishment, but, on top of everything else, these everyday indignities now demand our attention. The Harvard College Black Men’s Forum has issued an open letter in response to Davis’s execution, and we echo its call for justice.