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In The Shadow Of Death

By Rebecca OUP-US

Elizabeth Beck, shadow-of-death.jpgthe author of In the Shadow of Death: Restorative Justice and Death Row Families, with Sarah Britto and Arlene Andrews, is an Associate Professor in the School of Social Work at Georgia State University. In The Shadow of Death explores restorative justice, a theory which views violent crime as an extreme violation of relationships; searches for ways to hold offenders accountable; and meets the needs of victims and communities torn apart by the crime, organizes these narratives and integrates offenders’ families into the process of transforming conflict and promoting justice and healing for all. In the article below Beck explores the tales of two men, one who is facing imminent execution. Check the blog later today for a Q & A with Beck.

Troy Davis is facing a July 17 execution date, and yet no court of law has heard the evidence indicating that he might very well be innocent. At this point the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole is the only entity that can save him. Troy’s family and national organizations are fighting to save his life. They hope and pray that their efforts will yield the same results as that of Joe Amrine and his family.

In 2003 Jospeh Amrine, so perilously close to death, had already selected the music for his funeral. Originally sentenced to 12 years in prison in 1989 for forging checks, Joe was sent to death row several years into his sentence for a prison murder. By 2000, like Troy Davis, his appeals had run out. Joe needed the court to know that the witnesses who testified against him had recanted, and that they originally testified because they were being raped by inmates and were threatened by investigators. As one witness explained, “when the [investigator] said that they would stop me from being raped and stuff, I had to do it.” But the Federal District Court and the Supreme Court, as well as the Missouri Supreme Court, refused to acknowledge any of this. Joe would serve 18 additional years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

Today, Troy Davis finds himself in a similar, near-impossible situation. Troy has been on Georgia’s death row for more than 15 years, his conviction largely based on witness testimony. At the time of this writing, all but two of the nine witnesses who testified against Troy have recanted and admitted that their initial statements were made under police duress. Like Joe, Troy must overcome the fact that his death penalty appeals have been denied, and the recantations of the eye witnesses who convicted him will not be heard in court.

One might ask, “how can this occur?” How can an individual face execution without an airing of the evidence? The answer is largely rooted in three policies. The first was the 1993 US Supreme Court decision in Herrera v. Collins. Here the court determined that a claim of actual innocence based on newly discovered evidence was not necessarily enough to support a new trial. The second was the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), which sought to streamline federal appeals for those on death row. According to Amnesty International, “The Act placed new, unprecedented restrictions on prisoners raising claims of constitutional violations.” While the third policy, the 1995 Supreme Court ruling Schlup v. Delo, gave a condemned prisoner an opportunity for a hearing if reliable and new evidence emerges. Yet the Schlup decision still provided no help to Joe and Troy, as the ruling allows for this in only extremely rare cases And the courts in Missouri and Georgia clearly did not view the recantations that lead to Joe’s exoneration, and the questions raised regarding Troy’s innocence as meaningful enough to support a hearing.

Without a hearing for new evidence both men have had to turn to their families and the public. Joe’s 10 siblings worked tirelessly to get the people of Missouri to understand that an innocent man in their state could be executed. A film was made about the case and the siblings spoke at every church, town hall and meeting that they could while asking individuals to sign petitions that they carried to the governor. When Governor Holden agreed to support Joe and the Missouri Supreme Court agreed to overturn their previous decision, it was widely acknowledged that the advocacy made a difference.

Troy’s sister Martina quit her job years ago to fight for Troy. She does so against the backdrop of her own battle with breast cancer. And while her battle with cancer has not been easy, she has never let it get in the way of the hours that she spends organizing to get the word out about Troy. Her work has gained traction as the outpour of support for Troy Davis is large. A google search shows pages of sites devoted to Troy’s case. The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, the largest organization devoted to abolishing the death penalty in the U.S., has highlighted the case. Amnesty International has organized an international post card campaign and letter campaign (which can be accessed from www.ncadp.org). Individuals ranging from Henry Belafonte to Desmond Tutu have written to the Georgia Board of Pardon and Paroles. Facebook pages and MySpace pages have emerged.

I have met both of the families while conducting research for my book. I know that like Joe and his family, Troy’s family hopes and prays that those who have power will hear them. Martina does not want to have to explain to her son why his uncle was put to death. If Troy is executed, I am not sure that we as citizens can explain how we have allowed our country to allow this unacceptable tragedy.

To learn more check out some of these resources:
National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty
Amnesty International
Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty
Stand Down Texas
Atlanta Progressive News

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  1. […] in A-Editor’s Picks on July 16, 2007 | Share This Earlier today we shared an essay by Elizabeth Beck, one of the authors of In the Shadow of Death: Restorative Justice and Death Row […]

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