Troy Davis may be physically dead, but his legacy to end the death penalty will live on.
For weeks, social justice supporters and anti-death penalty activists fought to save the life of death row inmate Troy Davis, but now that he’s gone, many are asking the question, “What now?”
When considering what Davis’s death will mean for the death penalty, race and the American justice system, one can’t help but to reflect on Davis’ last words.
"I am innocent," he said, while strapped to his lethal injection gurney just moments before he was executed Wednesday night. "All I can ask ... is that you look deeper into this case so that you really can finally see the truth. I ask my family and friends to continue to fight this fight."
It’s almost chilling to hear a man cling onto his innocence until his final words, and it’s even more horrifying to think, “what if this man was innocent?” Now, there’s no turning back.
In 1989, Davis was convicted for the murder of Mark MacPhail, a Georgia police officer. He served 22 years in prison and had been scheduled for execution three previous times. Unlike many cases, however, Davis had the support of prominent political figures ranging from former President Jimmy Carter to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, all of whom claimed that his case needed further investigation.
Furthermore, seven of the nine witnesses who had previously testified to Davis' guilt in the trial recanted their statements, claiming to have been targets of police intimidation, and still others claimed that another person confessed to shooting Officer MacPhail. Across the world, almost a million people signed petitions to stop the execution of the 42-year-old whose case they all believed had “too much doubt.”
After Davis’s death, officer MacPhail's widow, Joan MacPhail-Harris, said that it was "a time for healing for all families," and that she will grieve for the Davis family because they are now going to understand her family’s “pain and hurt.” She may be in for a surprise, however, because many observers doubt, based on the now-famous final request of the death row inmate, that this is the end of the Troy Davis case and the efforts for his family to seek justice.
Additionally, Davis’ family members aren’t the only people expected to fight on his behalf. Prior to his execution and outside of the Georgia prison and the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., crowds of demonstrators chanted, "They say death row; we say h*ll no!"
To many, Davis’ fight for life became personal. People started to feel as if they were fighting for the life of their loved one.
“What might have been moments of private feeling became glaring examples of structural inequity and, at least for some, the failures of justice and political institutions,” Assistant Professor of Media Studies at the University of Virginia, Jennifer Peterson, explains in her book Murder, the Media, and the Politics of Public Feelings.
According to Peterson’s argument, in cases like Davis’s, as well as Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr., the media coverage works to articulate socially-unjust deaths as matters of public discussion, mobilizing and endorsing action aimed at policy issues.
Davis may be physically gone, but there’s no denying that the way he died will be in policy discussions to come about the United States’ death penalty. Could it be that the death penalty, widely criticized for evidence of racial bias, is a modern, legalized form of lynching in the United States? We've read about a time in history when slaves were put to death despite a lack of evidence to prove their guilt and, today, through cases like Davis’s, some might argue that there is a possible correlation between historical and modern-day injustice in death penalty cases.
The MacPhail family may think that Troy Davis is a murderer but, one day after his demise, he is a type of "martyr" to many.
May his death be a call for America to start being proactive instead of reactive in the fight for, as the Pledge of Allegiance says, “liberty and justice for all.”
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(Photo: Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)