Civil Liberties

My Visit With Troy Davis, a Man Facing Death on October 27th

Twice, Davis has said goodbye to loved ones but had his life spared. Now, he faces execution a third time.
***UPDATE: On October 24, Troy Davis was granted a stay of execution. Go here for more information.***

October 23rd is a Global Day of Action for Troy Davis. Go here for more information.

They come out of the corridor all dressed up, with perfectly ironed white suits with blue collars and tennis shoes, a white smile upon their shaved faces. It is visiting day, and they have been waiting for it since last week.

They lean in a line against the yellow painted gates with their arms straight out, waiting for the warden to release their handcuffs, and then they dissolve in the crowded room filled with kids and antsy wives who offer them prepackaged foods just purchased from the vending machines in the hall -- their gourmet lunch for the day.

But Troy Davis is not allowed in the visitation room with the rest of them because he is a death row inmate. Visitors see him in a separate room, two gates away from where others greet guests.

Inside the prison, he is known by the number 657378, since the day he was confined to cell 79 on the top floor of the G-house in the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson, Ga. He was convicted for the murder of a police officer when he was 20 years old. He has always said he is innocent.

Davis has been sitting on Georgia's death row for 17 years, charged with the assault of Larry Young, a homeless man, and the murder of police officer Mark Allen MacPhail in the parking lot of a Burger King in Savannah, Ga. on August 19, 1989. Seven of the nine eyewitnesses who testified that Davis was present at the shooting have recanted their testimony, saying police pressured them into making false statements. Their recantations have never been heard in court. No weapon has ever been found, and no physical evidence connects Davis to the crime.

After years of litigation, Davis exhausted his appeals to the Georgia Supreme Court in March 2008 when the court denied him an evidentiary hearing. He was denied clemency from the Georgia Pardons and Paroles Board on Sept. 8, 2008. His appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was not considered until Sept. 23, when the court convened an emergency session and gave Davis a stay less than two hours before his scheduled execution, due to the abundance of incongruent evidence in favor of his innocence.

The stay gave Davis and his many supporters new hope. But on Oct. 14, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to give Davis's case a full hearing, leaving the lower court verdict intact. A new death warrant was issued few days later and a third execution date is scheduled for Oct. 27 at 7pm.

I met Davis inside the walls of the prison for the first time, when, after a two-month correspondence, I decided to fly to Jackson to talk to him in person. I wanted to know for myself how someone could sleep at night, knowing that death might soon be whispering in his ears for a crime he says he did not commit.

The answer was more powerful than I had expected.

"My faith has taught me that if you give all your worries to God he will carry your burdens," Davis wrote in a letter to me sent the day after my visit. "It's God that carried me through death's valley and took my worries away."

For Davis, faith is the door to freedom. Having faith makes you stronger than your family and able to support them more than they are supporting you, he said, because they are the ones who will be left behind once you are gone and you have to show them you are not afraid to die.

"Sometimes all of this seems like it's happening to someone else. I sometimes dream to be free, but in each dream my family is 18-and-a-half years younger, and my father is still alive," said Davis during an in-person interview in April 2008. "I am disappointed at the system, but refuse to become bitter and angry, because I still have a lot of fight left in me … I have too much to live for to give up, to give up on myself means I have given up on my family as well, but we are in this together and I cannot give up now."

Meeting Davis not only changed the person I am today, it changed the way I perceived death, and prison, and the smell of prepackaged food.

Walking though the prison's metal gates in the early hours of that April day, I felt sick to my stomach. Standing in line with mothers, daughters and wives of inmates, I felt out of place and inappropriate. I had not lost anyone dear to the prison's walls; I was just a cocky journalist in search of a scoop. But my feeling of regret soon vanished once I saw the smile on Davis's face, and perceived how much my interest in his case changed his day.

I was not allowed to bring a recorder in to my interview with Davis. I wasn't even allowed pen and paper. Eight hours after I sat down with him, my head filled with interesting thoughts and minus $10 in prepackaged food later, I left his cell to pour my thoughts on paper.

Six months have passed since that day. I've tried to start writing this article ten times, trying different structures and voices and perspectives. I'm finally ready to explore my chat with Davis that foggy afternoon of late April.

Why now? Because much has changed since that weekend when I talked to him in person. I think it is time for others to know what I found in that cell that so captured my attention, especially now that Davis is facing his third and final execution date on Oct 27.

Before prison, Davis was a big brother to his siblings. He took night classes to get his high school diploma so he would have time to take care of his younger sister Kimberly when she became paralyzed. He would drop her off and pick her up from school since their parents were separated, their oldest sister Martina was in the army, and their mom worked the day shift, he said. After he graduated from high school, Davis worked in his father's construction company. Every week, he took $50 from his paycheck and snuck the cash into his mother's room to help her pay the bills, he said.

It never crossed his mind that hanging out with the wrong people on a summer night in 1989 could have cost him his life as a free man, or that an innocent man -- which he insists he is -- could be slated to die under the American justice system.

"For an innocent man like me the justice system continues to fail me. Why is that so hard to admit they made a mistake? What kind of person knows he coerced false evidence to convict an innocent man and still refuses to right the wrong? Who is more barbaric then, them or the people they put in prison?" he asked in a letter dated April 27. "I would like to ask society how long would you remain quiet while innocent people suffer, while we remain on death row and unjustly get convicted? When is it that enough is enough? When will you speak up and fight to stop injustice everywhere? Or will you wait until someone you love becomes a victim to the system, too?"

***

It is no surprise that a man facing death would say he is innocent of the crime. But Davis is not alone in claiming his innocence.

While investigating Davis's story, I came across a similar case: the case of Rubin Cantu, a 22-year-old Hispanic man who was executed in Texas in 1993. As in Davis's case, Cantu was convicted based solely on eyewitness identification. He was found to be innocent -- after he was killed. Among the documents on file in Davis's case was a letter from Samuel D. Millsap Jr., a former Texas District Attorney and the prosecutor in Cantu's case. In the letter, Millsap said he has concerns about having convicted Rubin Cantu for a crime he might not have committed solely on the basis of one eyewitness's testimony.

Millsap said he thinks Troy Davis's case is similar to Cantu's.

"In the Davis case now, the question is if we are about to execute a man in circumstances in which it is likely or, at least, there is a substantial chance that he did not commit the crime that he was convicted for," he said. "It seems to me that what courts have an obligation to do is try to make sure that justice is done and that the innocents are protected. Personally, what the Georgia Court has done by refusing to grant Troy Davis a hearing is really the ultimate in form over substance."

Millsap believes in Davis's innocence. In 2007, he wrote a letter to the Pardons and Paroles Board advocating clemency for Davis. Amnesty International has also been active in Davis's case, publishing a detailed report on his trial's flaws and organizing weekly rallies in Atlanta.

***

"Being on death watch is something unimaginable. I did not realize the seriousness of it until it was all over," Davis said when we talked in prison in April. "Imagine having to fill out paperwork on who will visit you on your last 24 hours alive. Imagine writing goodbye letters to your loved ones. Planning your last meal. Walking to each death row inmates' cell, shaking their hands while they say 'good luck,' while I was responding 'I will be back.' Imagine seeing grownup men with tears rolling down their faced who you did not know they cared so much about you. Imagine filling out papers on who will receive your personal property and your dead body."

Davis will go through the motions of waiting for a police officer to come in to his cells to take all his measurements from shoe size to shoulder width. He has been through this twice before.

"They take your shoe size, they measure you up so they can find someone your size they can use to try out the scenario of the execution," he said during our talk on April 27. "They make sure they choose the same size guards to attend the execution so they can deal with you if you resist them."

Then they will put him in a 35-foot-tall isolation cell with a steel toilet, a steel cart and a 24-hour camera monitoring him as if he were a "museum display," he said. When he went through this process before, he was given a Bible, some sheets of paper a pen, envelopes and an old TV/radio. They gave him clothing that were two sizes too big, so that if he tried to fight the guards his pants would fall off and he would have to surrender because he would be stumbling all over his clothing.

Besides his faith in God, Davis says one person has kept him sane through his years in prison -- his "angel," his older sister Martina Correia, a breast cancer survivor who has been by his side for all these years, even when the strength to fight seemed to fade away. He said without her he would have probably given up on life and freedom much earlier.

"Watching how Martina sacrificed her dreams to free her brother inspired me to fight harder and helped me to think about my family before I allowed myself to get into any trouble that would keep me from seeing them," said Davis on a letter dated April 8. "I thank God for her daily. I want to build her a house, I want to put her son De Jaun through college so he can follow his dream to find a cure for Cancer, which is what she is fighting."

Correia splits her free time working as an executive director of the National Black Leadership Initiative on Cancer and as the National Steering Committee Chair for Amnesty International. She travels the world in the name of her brother, because innocence matters for everyone, she said.

"We are in this fight to win," she said in an email exchange on Sept. 2. "I do it for the man he is. I will rest when he is free."

The "stay tough" attitude seems to run in the family. It comes through in a letter from Davis written right after the Georgia Supreme Court denied him a new trial. A new execution date was looming, but Davis was still sure justice would prevail.

"Personally I think things will work out before then," he wrote in his last letter to me, dated Sept. 18, 2008. "I'll be home living the life of a free man soon."