Georgia on My Mind

"The law," Aristotle said, rather hopefully, "is reason free from passion." If at its most ideal, the American justice system reaches this tempered height, the execution of Troy Davis on Wednesday night illustrated that when it comes to two of the most inflamed subjects the courts can address--race and capital punishment cases-- passions can still eclipse and indeed become the law. The details of Davis' case, and the extraordinary doubt cast upon his guilt up until his death, are so well known as to not bear repeating. But what is worth a closer examination are the ramifications the racial undertones surrounding his case, along with the doubt it has cast upon the functionality and morality of our justice system as a whole.

Despite the protestations that certainly would arise from the cadre of post-racial-white-guilt-alarmists, the undeniable facts of Troy Davis' execution are that he was a black man accused of killing a white man in a state next door to the one serving as a backdrop for the most famous fictional civil rights case in history. (Paging Atticus Finch, we needed you.) "[This case] harkens back to some of the ugly days in the history of this state," said Reverend Raphael Warnock of Ebenezer Baptist Church, who visited with Davis the day before his execution. Davis himself implied a racial component his execution when he said the same day--"The struggle is for all the Troy Davises who came before me, and all who will come after." The sense in Georgia and throughout the country is pervasive, especially on the heels of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn's trial, that if Davis had been a wealthy or white, he would be signing a six-figure book deal about his wrongful conviction right now, rather than dead.

Without discounting the right of Officer MacPhail's family to grieve or overstating the importance of their method of so doing, some of the statements made by the MacPhail family in the days before Davis' execution are more than enough to give one pause. When pressed on Davis' claims of innocence, MacPhail's mother Anneliese said, "he's been telling himself that for 22 years. You know how it is, he can talk himself into anything." She sounds like she is talking about someone who isn't a person, who doesn't have to be a person, and she is able to do so because of the state and history she's operating under--you know how it is, officer, audience, this man is deceitful and unwilling to pay the consequences for his actions. Shiftless, she may as well have hissed.

Beyond racial overtones, the MacPhail family seemed not to understand that their own grief, profound as it might be, was not a client of the United States justice system. The family seemed relentlessly focused on their own emotional vindication, and little concerned with who bore the brunt of it, little concerned with the fact that Davis upon his conviction might have become a stand-in for their grief, not the perpetrator of it. "We are victims," Officer MacPhail's widow said. "We have laws in this land so there is not chaos. We are not killing Troy because we want to." A radio reporter who witnessed Davis' death may have summed it up best: "The family seemed to get some satisfaction from the execution."

Our reaction to the approaching miscarriage of justice was largely commendable. 630,000 petitions were delivered to the Georgia board of parole, and numerous entireties were made to stay the execution on behalf of Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter, and former FBI director and death penalty supporter William Sessions. Edward O. BuBose, President of the Georgia NAACP, reported Wednesday that the group had "very reliable information from the board members directly that the board was split 3 to 2 on whether to grant clemency." As hundreds of supporters gathered outside of the prison in Jackson Wednesday night, frustration swept through those watching from home that one person had apparently assumed the role of God in deciding the board's outcome, and thus the life of Troy Davis.

Efforts grew increasingly desperate as Wednesday wore on, with calls for prison officials not to report to work, the president of the NAACP calling on President Obama to intervene, and Davis' lawyers appealing to the board to allow Davis to take a polygraph test-- a request which was declined. Proud, optimistic, prayerful, Davis refused his last meal, and he had in years past when his execution seemed imminent, denying that each meal would be his last. When word came an hour before Davis' scheduled execution at 7PM that the Supreme Court was reviewing a petition from his lawyers on whether to stay the execution, a brief reprieve spread through the assembled--surely reasonable doubt wasn't really this country's metric of the best time for an execution, surely the judiciary wasn't so removed from the facts casting Davis' guilt in question as to be as it seemed-- from another country, from another era, from L'Etranger. But at 10:52, the Supreme Court delivered its one-sentence denial of a stay, and the execution went ahead as had been planned. "I did not personally kill your son, father, brother," Davis said to MacPhail's family. "I am innocent." He was declared dead at 11:08PM.

Of what consequence all of this, for those of us who are not the Davis' or the MacPhails? What of it is that many people will see America differently, not the least of all, America's own citizens. Davis was black, and the man who he allegedly killed was white, and whether this played a role in his conviction or not, he comes from a land with a long history of weighing those qualifications heavily. His execution, coming as close as it does to the dismissal of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case for its "lack of a credible witness," pokes holes in what we pride ourselves on, both as a point of distinction from other countries, and as a distinction from our own fraught past. It discredits what I thought I knew for sure until Wednesday -- that the color of your skin or the size of your bank account or the clout of your connections might help you get a job or a date, but won't be the determining factors in saving your life, won't be the reason you end up where Troy David did: "Strapped to the death gurney, he lifted his head to address the family of the slain officer. He told the family of Mark MacPhail that he was not responsible for the officer's death and did not have a gun at the time, according to execution witnesses. Davis said the case merited further investigation, talking fast as officials prepared to give him the lethal cocktail."

Perhaps the most chilling consequence for this country is that sense that arose that the state was the enemy, an ominous entity whose decrees and did not need to bend to the precepts our justice system is based on -- reasonable doubt, innocent until proven guilty, equality before the law. What does Troy Davis tell us about the land that wrote his story? What does it tell us about who we are?

It says we seemed to get some satisfaction from the execution.

It says we said the case merited further investigation, talking fast as the doctors prepared to give him the lethal cocktail.