Living with Grace in the Shadow of Death Row

Reflections on “I Am Troy Davis” and the famous death row inmate from a minister who visited him in prison for years.

Not long after Troy Davis’s execution on September 21, 2011, I paid a pastoral visit to one of Troy’s fellow death-row prisoners at the state prison in Jackson, Georgia. The man, who normally greeted me with a smile, looked down at the floor and shambled toward me. Shaking, he gave me a hug. When we sat down across from each other, he stared at the drab linoleum tile at his feet, as he did for most of our visit.

He said many of the men in his cellblock had the same problem he did: since Troy’s death, eye contact was hard for them. The man told me he couldn’t bear news reports about the recently executed prisoner. Hardest of all was seeing a picture of Troy Davis. Alternately speaking and folding and unfolding his arms across his white uniform shirt, the prisoner struggled for an hour to explain his feelings and those of his fellow prisoners. Tired, he looked like a man on a long journey.

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51EQStkX9pLIn their book I Am Troy Davis, Jen Marlowe and Martina Davis-Correia (Troy’s older sister) tell of Troy Davis’s odyssey. In brief, the story goes like this: early on the morning of August 19, 1989, white police officer Mark MacPhail ran to help a homeless man who was being attacked in a dimly lit parking lot in Savannah, Georgia. The officer was shot and killed. A local tough, Sylvester “Redd” Coles, who like Troy Davis was African American, fingered Troy. A manhunt ensued, and Troy turned himself over to police.

Believing his innocence would carry the day, Troy testified at trial that he had tried to help the homeless man — with whom Coles, according to Coles’s own admission, had picked a fight over a beer. Troy, according to his testimony, told Coles to “leave the man alone,” then walked away. Troy recounted that when he heard “Hold it!” and shots fired, his walk became a run toward nearby projects. Though the murder weapon was never recovered, eyewitnesses — including Coles — identified Troy as the shooter, and other witnesses said Troy had confessed to the crime. The jury convicted Troy of murder — and then voted to put him to death.

Years later, most of the key witnesses recanted their testimonies. Police pressure and deal-making were revealed. Witnesses also came forward who testified that Coles had confessed to killing Officer MacPhail; another testified that he had seen Coles pull the trigger.

Into the chronicle of Troy’s legal proceedings, I Am Troy Davis artfully interweaves the story of the Davis family’s resistance to injustice and how they championed Troy’s innocence. Martina, especially, spread the word about what was happening to Troy, learning more and more about the racism and arbitrariness of capital punishment and advocating its abolition. And she made contacts: the private law firm that would help fight Troy’s post-conviction battles, Amnesty International, the NAACP, Georgians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, and other groups got behind Troy. At home, Martina created the kind of environment where her son, De’Jaun, born in 1994, embraced human rights. Though Martina came down with breast cancer, the illness didn’t stop her. She had cancer, she said, but cancer didn’t have her.

Troy Davis holding his niece.
Troy Davis holding his niece.

I Am Troy Davis portrays Troy as loving and genuine throughout the ordeal of his twenty-two-year incarceration. He’s depicted as concerned with abolishing capital punishment, not just for himself, but for everyone. We read that he prayed with his family during their visits, cared for them, and let them care for him. We are told that he made paper airplanes for De’Jaun in the visiting room and became a father figure to him. We learn that Troy delighted in his niece Kiersten’s visits, grinning while trying to reproduce the child’s ballet poses. Readers meet him as a man of compelling character.

And so he was, I believe. The grieving man I visited soon after Troy’s death had once needed, he told me, paper and pencil to write letters home. He mentioned his need to Troy. Soon the man found — not so mysteriously to him — a pad of paper and a pencil on the bunk in his cell. Another prisoner explained to me how Troy greeted him warmly the day the man arrived on death row and how, over time, Troy’s friendship helped him face living in death’s shadow. Another man told me that Troy was a peacemaker on the primitive basketball court during yard call, working to keep harmony when tempers flared.

Still another prisoner explained to me, “Troy taught me how to be a man. He didn’t blow up in adversity.” I asked this same man, when we joked about prisoners’ nicknames, “What did Troy call you?” The man paused, overcome by emotion, and answered, “He called me his brother.” This man — a white guy from the deep South — and Troy Davis — a black man from Savannah — were brothers. Troy knew that, and he wasn’t afraid to say it.

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Troy with family copy
Troy Davis with his family. Top row: Martina (sister), Troy Davis, Lester (brother). Middle: De’jaun (nephew). Bottom: Ebony (sister); Virginia (mother); Kimberly (sister)

At about 6’1”, of muscular build, Troy could have been an intimidating physical presence, had he wished. Instead, he carried himself gracefully — if a bit tentatively, shyly. Through the years, when Troy entered the prison visiting room, he always gave me a big hug. When he spoke about his family’s visits, his eyes grew bright. His tone was scholarly when we talked about the Sermon on the Mount. When he spoke of his innocence, his words rose from his heart. When times were especially rough, when he had been in his cell with a sheet hung across his door so he could meditate in private, he was quieter than usual. Often, the sheet and his silence meant he’d been worrying about Martina or his mother, Virginia—Virginia dying out of love for her son months before his execution, Martina from cancer months after her brother’s death.

What was Troy’s religious faith as I came to know it? There was nothing saccharine about it. Nor was it expressed in pious gab or glib quotations of scripture. There was not a trace of “cheap grace,” to use Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s phrase, in Troy’s faith, which was tested in the fire. His few prayers were restrained and of great substance, sometimes asking God to comfort his family and the MacPhails. Put simply, Troy lived for a Love who called him to love. Troy was not an “operator,” as I’m afraid too many people deciding his fate saw him. He was a warm, soft-spoken man, a deeply human magnet who drew supporters to him because he saw clearly how much people matter.

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The Troy Davis I knew was, above all, a man of integrity. Consequently, he could say, believably, his final words from the death chamber, words that I Am Troy Davis records. With the MacPhail family in mind, he said: “I am innocent. The incidents that happened that night, it was not my fault. I did not have a gun that night. I did not shoot your family member. But I am so sorry for your loss. I really am, sincerely. All that I can ask is that each of you look deeper into this case so that you will really, finally see the truth.” With his supporters in mind, he said: “I ask my family and friends that you all continue to pray, that you all continue to forgive, that you continue to fight this fight.” He addressed these words to his executioners: “For those about to take my life, may God have mercy on all of your souls.” His very last words: “God bless you all.”

I Am Troy Davis sustains throughout its pages the tone of Troy’s final words. Neither a rant nor a diatribe, the book is a passionate cry of the conscience. It is the chronicle of a man caught up in a failed justice system and the story of a family who expressed its love for him with profound tenderness and steely resistance.

DJ and Troy mucle man copy
Troy Davis with his nephew.

I Am Troy Davis reminds us that the “system pitted two innocent, victimized families against one another.” The book acknowledges the pain of Officer MacPhail’s mother, Anneliese MacPhail, who said six months after Troy’s execution, “I don’t have the peace yet that I was hoping for.” In this regard, I Am Troy Davis comments that the “death penalty offers the false promise that the taking of one life can be answered by the taking of another.”    

Surely, the way to take the message of I Am Troy Davis is to grieve: for Officer Mark MacPhail and Troy Davis and their families — and for our culture. Equally surely, we should feel outrage at a society that would execute a person, as it did Troy, on the basis of questionable, tainted evidence — or execute any person, on the basis of any evidence, for such punishment is, as the book points out, based on a “false promise,” a lie. Surely, too, the book challenges us not to remain with powerful feelings alone, but to act — to abolish capital punishment. That is the way of the Davis family.

During the time I knew him, commitment to righteous action was certainly the way of Troy Davis — right down to his final hours in his cellblock. Recently, I learned from one of Troy’s fellow prisoners that Troy spent some of those hours not only feeling deeply but acting generously. To those in need, he gave from his meager worldly belongings: a t-shirt here, a pair of socks there, soap to one prisoner, shampoo to another, a handkerchief to the man who told me the story. In a time when blindness plagues us, Troy was teaching us to see with the eye of the heart. Even as his life was closing, he acted to teach us how much people matter. It is lesson that we ignore at great peril to us all.

It is a lesson that I Am Troy Davis teaches us well. 

Images courtesy of Jen Marlowe and the Davis family.

Randy Loney
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