In my last post I told you that, barring a miracle, Troy Davis would die on Monday evening. Folks, we got our miracle!
“Upon our thorough review of the record,” the 11th Circuit Court of appeals (federal) announced today, “we conclude that Davis has met the burden for a provisional stay of execution.”
This outcome was NOT expected. The international outcry surrounding this case is having an effect. We have to sympathize with the families of Troy Davis and Officer Mark MacPhail, the man Davis is accused of killing in 1989. This emotional roller coaster ride has been excruciating for everyone associated with the Davis case.
“I am Troy Davis!” 600 supporters chanted from the steps of the Georgia State Capitol Thursday evening. “Justice matters!” we roared again and again; “Innocence matters!”
There were just a few men setting up the stage when I arrived at the Capitol an hour before the rally was scheduled to begin. Gradually, the sidewalk began to fill with the most diverse crowd I have seen at a justice rally. Black and white, old and young, sophisticates and just plain folks, college students and preachers–all were united by a strange mix of love and outrage.
As the crowd assembled I moved from person to person, introducing myself. Amnesty International president Larry Cox impressed me immediately. When I asked if he had a law practice before assuming his current duties Larry shook his head. “I’m not a lawer,” he said, “I’ve been an activist all my life.”
Unlike most of the speakers, Cox read from a prepared transcript, but with such intense urgency that his passion was palpable. Cox is adamantly opposed to the death penalty, a commitment shared by virtually all of the two dozen people who graced the makeshift stage last night. One African American pastor confided to us that, until joining the fight for Troy Davis, he was a death penalty proponent. No more.
But Mr. Cox has grown to love Troy Davis and his family. This isn’t just about the death penalty anymore. It’s personal.
An imposing statue of Thomas E. Watson (d. 1922) dominates the main entrance to the Georgia Capitol Building. As the speakers took their turns at the microphone last night, old Mr. Watson glared down on us, his fists raised in angry protest. I suspect the statue was made from a photograph of the firey Watson on the stump, but last night, his face bathed in the spot lights that surround the Capitol, he looked like a man possessed.
“Who’s this Watson guy,” I asked the wife of an Episcopal clergyman.
“I’m not sure,” she replied, “but I hear he laid the groundwork for segregation in the state of Georgia.
She’s right. According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, Thomas E. Watson was a complex character who began his political career during the Reconstruction years. The Georgia politician was a populist who defended the small farmer against the industrialists of his day. Initially, he worked hard for the black vote, opposing lynch law and the practice of re-establishing slavery by leasing black prisoners out to the highest bidder.
But Watson soon changed course. As the Jim Crow regime took hold in Georgia, his stump speeches became studded with anti-black, anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish rhetoric of the most ghastly sort. Another good man had fallen under the demonic shadow of white supremacy.
Instead of taking down Watson’s statue, the modern state of Georgia decided to erect a tiny display celebrating black suffrage.
There is also a statue of a young Jimmy Carter tucked away in a corner of the Capitol Building. Carter’s monument is smaller and less prominent than Watson’s; I almost had the feeling that the current political regime is ashamed of the state’s most famous citizen.
Jimmy Carter is commonly defamed as a weak and ineffectual president, but I suspect history will remember the Georgian more kindly than did his contemporaries. Andrew Bacevich argues persuasively that Carter’s much-maligned “malaise speech”, delivered at the height of the first energy crunch, was a warning America ignored at its peril. Carter told us we were addicted to fossil fuels and that we were spending beyond our means. We didn’t want to hear it, so we elected Ronald “Morning in America” Reagan.
Last night I had the odd sense that the state of Georgia is locked in a death match between the spirit of Jimmy Carter and the tragic legacy of Thomas Watson. Carter’s Georgia wants to give Troy Davis a full hearing; Watson’s Georgia wishes Davis had been hung a few days after his conviction.
As Larry Cox emphasized last night, we can only claim that the State of Georgia may be executing an innocent man. Until Davis receives a full hearing we can’t weigh the facts effectively. That’s why a hearing is manditory.
But one thing is obvious to anyone who has read through the affidavits of the recanting witnesses in this case: law enforcement shaped testimony through threats and promises. Police officers, outraged by the savage and merciless slaying of one of their own, rushed to judgment then shaped the “evidence” to support a hastily-reached conclusion.
Those who know Troy Davis best are convinced of his innocence. He doesn’t fit the psychological profile of a man trying to save his skin.
Troy’s sister, Martina Correia, has no doubts about her brother’s innocence. Tears streaming down her face, Ms. Correia told us of her long struggle withcancer. “Every month the doctors have to pump poison into my veins to keep my alive,” she told us. “I’ve been on chemotherapy for years, just trying to stay alive long enough to see Troy walk free. And I just can’t understand why the State of Georgia wants to pump poison into the veins of my brother to take his life when they know their case against him has fallen apart.”
Did last night’s rally have any influence on today’s miraculous ruling from the 11th Circuit?
All we know for certain is that Troy’s attorneys have fifteen days to file the necessary paperwork with the court. The court then has ten days to respond.
The great news is that the final decision will be made after a presidential election that is currently diverting attention from virtually everything else. Sarah Palin’s hair stylist is getting more attention these days than the economy. Soon we will be in a news cycle much more attentive to the Troy Davis story. That shouldn’t matter, but it does.
Last night in Atlanta, the horror of an imminent outrage mixed with a strange kind of elation. Several speakers talked about their sense that a movement was gathering momentum. It’s not just about Troy Davis, and it’s not even restricted to the death penalty. Ultimately, this new movement is about our broken criminal justice system and the urgent need for sweeping reform.
Thomas Watson is now with the angels. His statue may have been brimming with hate last night, but whatever survives of the complicated Georgia politician looks down on the world through the compassionate eyes of Almighty God.
We don’t just need a new and better criminal justice system in America; we need a bigger God. How the justice, mercy and humility of Jesus ever got twisted into the vengeful religion that dominates so much of America today I don’t know. My hunch is that it started withthe extreme psychological tension of trying to reconcile slavery and Jim Crow segregation witha white-hot religious piety. Religion adapted to hate. Evangelical Christians need to come to terms with this legacy. It’s not enough for Southern Baptists to apologize for slavey (although that marked a wonderful beginning); we need to understand that our entire religious outlook has been shaped by history.
Last night felt like the early stages of a religious revival. As the evening grew late, one of the leaders looked out on the crowd and issued a dangerous invitation. “We need to end this night with prayer,” he said. “And God is telling me that there is a preacher with us this evening who has a word from God.”
Two people, a man and a woman, rushed to the stage without a second’s hesitation. The woman looked out on the crowd, her face wrapped in rapture. “In my church we believe in letting the Holy Spirit speak through us,” she said. “And tonight the Spirit wants me to speak as he has given me utterance.”
With that she broke into “the tongues of men and of angels”, the language of ecstasy common among Pentecostals and “charismatic” Christians. I’m not sure what the Episcipalians and Presbyterian preachers made of that, but I was touched. I was reminded of my tongue-speaking parents and the Holy Ghost meetings they used to take me to back in the day.
If you are the praying kind, please continue to pray for Troy Davis and for the nation that isn’t sure what to do with him.