Rod Meade Sperry reports on the execution of Troy Davis, and the moral implications for us all.
(The below commentary was posted here at 4:06 PM EST on September 21. What follows in this paragraph is an update on the Troy Davis story as of September 21, 11:13 PM EST.)
Shortly after the 7PM (EST) hour, the crowd began to cheer outside the prison where Troy Davis was awaiting his execution, and speculation began. Indeed, just moments later Amnesty International and the Huffington Post suggested that it looked like a stay of execution had been decided on. Yet, Amnesty soon tweeted about the case: “No stay, just a delay.” By 7:47 CNN was reporting that “The execution of Georgia death row inmate Troy Davis, scheduled for 7 p.m., has been delayed while the U.S. Supreme Court ponders a last-minute stay filed by his attorneys.” (Five justices would be needed to grant a stay.) From there, it became a waiting game, as supporters of Davis grew to between 200-300, according to reports, and maintained a peaceful vigil. Police stepped up their presence too, some donning riot gear. Then, things got relatively silent outside the prison. Finally, at 11:21 PM EST, word came through: the proposed stay of execution for Troy Davis had been rejected by the US Supreme Court. Those who had gathered reacted not with riots, but with quiet, prayer, and then chants of “We are Troy Davis.” Davis would be put to death by lethal injection at 11:08.
At this point, it’s basically a cliche to say that, with the death penalty, we all lose. But that doesn’t make it untrue. It’s of course vastly moving that people are out there, protesting what they see as a bogus case against Troy Davis, saying things like “We are all Troy Davis.” But we are all Mark MacPhail — whose killing Davis was charged with — too.
Most of the chatter, though — online, and in person — is about Troy Davis. Amnesty International calls his state-ordered capital punishment, scheduled to take place in Georgia this evening [but which was of course then delayed], “a grave injustice” — and has been calling on anyone who can stop it to stand up and do so. They’re hardly alone. Many, many people consider the evidence against Davis to be slim to non-existent; witnesses’ stories against him have mostly unraveled. (Click here for our coverage of the West Memphis Three case, another death-row case that ended, recently, after similar protest.)
On the other hand, the parole board that could have granted Davis clemency for the crime with which he is charged — the shooting death of off-duty policeman Mark MacPhail — saw fit not to. Some might choose to see into this some sort of conspiracy, but put yourself in that board’s shoes, imagine yourself likewise beholden to MacPhail’s community. (Yesterday, prosecutor in the case told CNN that he has no doubt about Davis’ guilt.) …If Davis were somehow proven to be MacPhail’s killer, after going free, that would be a grave injustice, as well. Injustice for one is as much an injustice as it is for the other.
In the Buddhist worldview, the taking of life is never advocated. And the reason for that is because in taking a life, we’re taking away someone’s chance, their right, to change. We’re not just killing. We’re stopping the possible from being possible. If we’re horrified by MacPhail’s being robbed of the chance to live, and to change, so too should we be by Davis meeting a similar fate. The question, for many of us, is whether or not the incarcerated can change.
Those of us who aren’t incarcerated might ask the same of ourselves.
To wit: “Sympathy for the Devil,” a feature story originally printed in Lion’s Roar. In it, lawyer Vicki Mandell-King tells of another Davis who faced a death sentence. Writes Mandell-King:
[…] Gary Davis and his third wife, Rebecca Fincham, kidnapped, sexually assaulted and shot Virginia May to death in a field outside Byers, Colorado. The following year, at his separate trial, Davis testified and took full blame for the crimes. In the penalty phase, the jury sentenced him to death. Rebecca Fincham received a life sentence.
The author, upon meeting and spending time with Gary Davis, would become shocked to see who Davis was becoming. In “Sympathy for the Devil” she details those changes, and her sense that said changes were very real. She wasn’t the only one who perceived them; when Davis went up for clemency, he was denied — though the Governor in the case did have to admit that he could see that Davis had changed. Davis, for his part,
[…] appreciated that the governor thought he had changed, and he agreed that his changes did not make up for what he had done — after all, nothing he could do could bring Virginia May back to life. Short of that, Gary’s own awareness of how he had changed was enough for him.
Toward the end of her article, Mandell-King writes:
There is a way in which the phrase “death penalty” is an oxymoron. Death is part of life, a release, a gateway to another life. But death is a penalty, whatever our private way of dealing with it, when it is imposed with the intention of punishing. To use death for such a purpose is wrong. Its purpose is far holier than that.
Death is a teacher. If we accept that change is constant and death undeniable, if we see death’s hand weaving a pattern of shadow and light in our lives, if we allow the certainty of loss to enrich rather than detract from our experiences — then in facing death, we learn how to truly live. We come to believe that our task is not to judge ourselves and others but to practice forgiveness.
Many have suggested that, if it is true that Gary had changed, that change occurred because he was facing his execution. For them, Gary’s rehabilitation becomes a justification for the death penalty. It may be that as death approaches there is a quickening, a clarity. But the changes in Gary Davis began long before this summer and had their origins not in fear of death, but in the forgiveness he found in his conception of God, in the eyes of others, and within himself. At the same time, the pending execution motivated people to show concern and support in a way they had not done before.
We might forget it, but: we can change. We can all change.
That being said, it’s worth noting that some things change more slowly than others: “Sympathy for the Devil” was originally published in 1988.
Time’s running out for us all.