Troy Davis has been on death row since 1991 for the alleged 1989 murder of a police officer in Savannah, Georgia. Now, key prosecution witnesses have come forward and admitted that their original testimonies were not truthful. On June 23, an evidentiary hearing began, and a ruling on Troy Davis is expected not long after legal briefs are filed on July 7th. Here, Elizabeth Beck* and Sarah Britto** remember the death row sentencing of Troy Davis, the ongoing controversies, and consider what it means to be the man accused of a crime he may not have committed.
As eyewitnesses inside the Savannah courtroom tell a judge that they lied 19 years ago, people are gathering outside wearing tee-shirts that read: “I am Troy Davis.” On the surface, being Troy Davis means that any one of us might find ourselves wrongly accused of a crime we did not commit. For Troy Davis, it began with a life-changing accusation 19 years ago. Following the testimony of nine witnesses and no physical evidence linking him to the crime, it led to his death sentence. A judge is now hearing the recantations of seven of the nine individuals who originally testified against Troy Davis. Can an innocent person be put to death if all procedures are properly followed? What constitutes new evidence? What kind of pressure are witnesses placed under to create state’s evidence? These questions only scratch the surface of what it means to be Troy Davis.
What does it mean to be Troy Davis? Being Troy Davis means saying goodbye to your family three times in two years, before last-minute interventions spare you from the death chamber each time. It means knowing that your sister, Martina Correira, despite her own battle with cancer and chemotherapy, has worked every day for your release and that she has been working alone for most of that time. It means knowing that your mother, Virginia, may have to stand by as your casket is lowered into the ground. Being Troy Davis means constantly worrying and fearing about the impact of your life on your loved ones.
The best-case scenario means that even if you are one day freed and recognized as innocent you will have lost 19 years. You will have to grieve the loss of those years as you relearn the meaning of freedom. You will have to negotiate a new world where computers, SMS texting, and sprawling strip malls are casual aspects of everyday life. Employers may look at you with suspicion and, like many other exonerees, you may be given no monetary compensation. It means that you will always miss the friends executed before you, and anguish over those who will be executed after you are free. Worst-case scenario: you will be executed for a crime you did not commit.
Being Troy Davis means that your life is intimately intertwined with the life and death of Officer Mark Allen MacPhail (whose murder you have been accused of), and the pain and suffering of his family and friends. The trauma of this connection will bind your families together forever. While our legal system attempts to sort through this case and establish the winners and losers, the agony of the process and the toll it takes on all involved parties remains unaddressed. As we think about what it means to be Troy Anthony Davis it is important that we look at the pain that accompanies the criminal justice process and begin to think about different ways to address crime and harm. One such method is restorative justice, an approach to crime, conflict, and harm that asks not what does the accused deserve, but what is needed to address the harm and loss that has occurred. Restorative justice does not have to replace the criminal justice system, but it does change the way in which we view harm. I am Troy Davis, but I don’t have to be, and perhaps by promoting restorative justice to assist in healing those harmed by violent crime, fewer of us will have to be Troy Davis.
Elizabeth Beck* is Associate Professor of Social Work at Georgia State University, Director of the Center for Community Social Work, and Principal Investigator for the Georgia Council for Restorative Justice. Beck is also involved in a number of community-based and forensic initiatives, and has consulted on numerous capital cases and has been asked to serve as an expert in state and federal cases. Her new book, an edited volume with Nancy Kropf and Pamela Leonard, Social Work and Restorative Justice: Skills for Dialogue, Peacemaking, and Reconciliation, will be released this fall.
Sarah Britto** is an Associate Professor of Law and Justice at Central Washington University. Her research highlights the grief and trauma experienced by offenders’ family members in capital cases, as well as the families of homicide victims. With Beck and Arlene Andrews, she coauthored In The Shadow of Death: Restorative Justice and Death Row Families.