From Warren McCleskey to Troy Davis, History Repeats

If you've been following the life, case and this week's execution of Georgia death-row inmate Troy Davis, you are acutely reminded of how justice is not always just. The timing and similarities of Mr. Davis's case and execution are uncanny and shockingly all too familiar.

20 years ago this Sunday, I lost a friend to capital punishment.

We started off as a pen-pals, became unlikely friends and, decades later, our relationship remains an ever-present influence in my life.

Before the days of email, I would spend evenings avoiding homework and instead writing him letters on my father's IBM Selectric typewriter. Weekly, I would race to the mailbox in anticipation of his next letter.

I met him for the first and only time in 1991, months prior to his execution in the electric chair. I was 16 years old. My mother snuck me out of high school (against my father's wishes) and drove me to an ominous prison south of Atlanta to meet, face to face, with an man who had been convicted of murdering an Atlanta policeman in May 1978. It was an unforgettable day.

There were striking differences between he and I, even though we were both born and raised in Marietta, Georgia:

I was white, he was black. When he grew up there, it was segregated. When I grew up, it was not. His childhood was spent in a poverty-stricken neighborhood, surrounded by abuse. Mine was spent on a pristine, middle-class street and surrounded with love. My letters were typed, his beautifully hand-written. He was in handcuffs, I was not. He was coming to the end of his life. I was moving to New York City to begin mine.

But, there were also striking similarities:

We both loved baseball. We both had a strong faith, his far more tested and tried than mine. We both were beginning to understand what mercy and redemption meant in our lives. And, we both enjoyed an unexpected friendship while getting to know each other through years of letters.

From a legal standpoint, his high profile case was landmark and controversial. By the time we met, his case had made twice U.S. Supreme Court history and captured the attention of notable figures such as Nelson Mandela and Coretta Scott King, both petitioning for clemency. Exhaustive studies proved that in the State of Georgia, blacks that killed whites were 11 times more likely to be executed than whites who killed blacks. Instead of producing a murder weapon, the prosecution produced a witness, a jailhouse informant who claimed to have obtained a braggadocios confession from my friend when he was placed in the cell next to his. The police informant came forth years later, admitting to lying on the stand.

This brazen misconduct (which attorneys, capital law experts and others familiar with his case, described as a miscarriage of justice) brought forth at least two jurors who wished to retract their verdict in favor of capital punishment. They were denied because, as the then Attorney General stated, "jurors do not have the right to veto their verdicts".

He was involved in an armed robbery that tragically took the life of Frank Schlatt, who, at thirty years old, was in the prime of his life. And he absolutely maintained, until the very end, that he was innocent of being the triggerman that took that valuable life. When I met him face to face, I had no reason to disbelieve him. I still believe in his innocence, decades later.

His case spanned twelve years and twenty-one appeals. His execution may have had less to do with the fact that the State of Georgia believed he was guilty and more to do with the issue of race. That issue is still hotly debated.

There is that old adage: "write what you know". So I did.

I wrote a play called "Red Herring". This two-hander set on death row was produced in the East Village of New York City five years ago.

Not surprisingly, the play was dedicated to my real-life friend.

So. Here we are. Twenty years later. And, I'm still writing about it. Especially this week.

Because on September 25, 1991, my friend Warren McCleskey was executed.

On that day, I was already living in New York City. I had already said goodbye the day we met and I said it again in my last letter. I also told him in the letter how I hoped to one day discover the peace in my life that he had found in his. I did find that peace in God.

My hope in sharing this story, both here and one day through my film currently in development about Warren McCleskey, is to capture how our friendship transcended the boundaries of prison bars and race. But also how my life was altered by the irresistible power of grace; the governing force that reveals how all of us (Warren McCleskey and Troy Davis included) -- despite our careless mistakes, gross shortcomings and heinous crimes (alleged or actual) -- have the same need:

To be loved.

Michael writes. When not writing, he is running Element Lifestyle, a private lifestyle architecture firm he co-founded in Los Angeles, where he lives with his best friend and wife, Wynn.