“It Takes Balls to Execute an Innocent Man”

The Editorial Board

On September 21, the state of Georgia executed Troy Anthony Davis for the murder of Savannah police officer Mark MacPhail. Davis’s story attracted worldwide scrutiny when the prosecution’s case against him unraveled after his conviction, with seemingly no acknowledgement from Georgia’s criminal justice system. Of the nine eyewitnesses whose testimony established that Davis had killed MacPhail, seven have since recanted, while one of the remaining two, Sylvester “Redd” Coles, has been heard by several witnesses admitting to the crime himself. One of the original jurors was quoted by CNN as stating flat out: “If I knew then what I know now, Troy Davis would not be on Death Row.”

Georgia’s intransigence in refusing to reconsider Davis’s case, refusing to admit the possibility that his guilt had not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt, is distressing but not unexpected. In dealing with racially tinged issues like the execution of a possibly innocent Southern black man, non-Southerners have a history of making what they see as civilized pleas for tolerance and mercy, which white Southerners have a history of interpreting as unreasonable demands from “outside agitators.” The round of applause Rick Perry received at his first GOP presidential debate for presiding over 234 executions as governor of Texas also reveals a disturbing strain in American conservatism that views the government’s deliberate killing of its own citizens as something to be celebrated, even in cases of ambiguous guilt such as Davis’s and Cameron Todd Willingham’s (whose execution under Perry inspired the remark in the headline), and even as the government’s powers to levy taxes and regulate the economy are derided as tyranny.

Like much of the progressive community, Oberlin has followed the Davis case attentively. A rock in Tappan Square still displays a message urging his pardon, and the morning after his execution, graffiti reading “RIP Troy Davis, America kills” appeared on the side of Mudd. Last night, students held a candlelight vigil in Tappan Square to mourn Davis’s death and, according to the event’s Facebook page, “to bear witness to the violence and atrocities of our so-called ‘criminal justice’ system.” In keeping with a long tradition marked by our participation in the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue in 1858 and renewed in our healthy involvement in the Freedom Rides and other civil rights actions a century later, Obies have demonstrated our historically rooted commitment to advancing the cause of racial justice and equality. (Although in terms of effectiveness, vandalizing the side of our library is certainly a step down from vigilante resistance to slave-catchers.) If Georgia is playing its traditional role in responding to outside agitators with stonewalling and violence, Oberlin is playing its own traditional role in filling the ranks of those agitators.

As the Facebook page for the candlelight vigil indicated, a case like this should strengthen our commitment to continuing the civil rights struggle at its next frontier: the U.S. legal system. Georgia’s execution of Troy Davis is but a fleeting snapshot of the naked injustices that our instruments of criminal justice and enforcement perpetrate on the poor in general and on people of color in particular — all across this country, not just in Georgia or the South. The disparity between mandatory minimum sentences for crack and powder cocaine, the wildly differing drug enforcement policies of police departments in inner cities and campus security forces at wealthy liberal arts colleges, and the simple fact that legal outcomes depend so strongly on one’s ability to afford a high-priced lawyer are all injustices that may not necessarily match slavery or Jim Crow in severity, but certainly inhabit the same category. Before Obies spend too much time condemning Georgia for callously disregarding justice and human decency, we should ask ourselves why poor black men from New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco and Cleveland are all spending years languishing in prison for the same sorts of offenses that land us prosperous college kids nothing but a slap on the wrist and a semester of deferred probation.