Motivational posters line the hallways en route to the visitation room. Images of rock climbers, an eagle soaring over clouds, a collection of hands of all pigmentation on a basketball, each with an inspirational one-word message: LEADERSHIP, OPPORTUNITY, ACHIEVEMENT, FOCUS, TEAMWORK.
Opportunity? Achievement? The irony was outrageous. The hallway was in the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison and I was walking down it with the Davis family en route to visit death row inmate Troy Davis.
Though I had been corresponding with Troy for years via letters and phone, December 2009 was my first visit. I knew I would not have the opportunity to be sitting in the same room as Troy; contact visits had been taken away from death row inmates a few months earlier. Instead, I spoke to Troy through a black iron grate, alongside his mother, sisters and teen-aged nephew. At the end of every visit, the Davis family formed a prayer circle, holding hands, Troy leading a prayer thanking God for their blessings and praying for the strength to continue their quest for justice.
With contact visits revoked, Troy could no longer hold hands with the rest of his family. Instead, he pressed his hands flat against the black iron grating. His family and I formed a semi-circle. Troy’s mother pressed her hand on the opposite side of the grate as Troy’s right palm, and his nephew did the same on the left. Everyone bowed their heads, closed their eyes and offered prayers. I couldn’t help but take a peek. Troy looked like a silhouette through the dense iron grill, his head bowed, his hands pressed against the grate, with his mother and nephew’s hands pressed just as firmly on the other side, finding a way, despite the steel and bars, to maintain their circle of prayer.
Georgia is preparing to kill Troy Davis at 7 p.m. tonight. He was sentenced to death in 1991 for the murder of off-duty police officer Mark Allen MacPhail, based largely on eyewitness testimony. In the intervening years, seven out of the nine eyewitnesses have either recanted or contradicted their trial testimony and people ranging from Desmond Tutu to former Georgia Republican Rep. Bob Barr have urged the state not to go through with the dubious execution. But the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Parole refused to grant clemency yesterday.
Troy has refused his last meal, opting to fast and pray. If the state carries out its plans, he will be strapped to a gurney. Needles will be thrust into his arms, so that three different lethal injection drugs will flow through his veins. If there is no last minute intervention, Troy will die.
Tonight’s expected execution of Troy Davis brings inconceivable pain and loss to his family and friends. But it should also bring deep self-probing to us as a country, forcing us to ask ourselves agonizing questions: How can our system of justice be comfortable executing a man despite such substantive doubts as to his guilt? How can our country possibly justify taking an unarmed, captive human being, and killing that human being? Who are we as a people if we, sanctioned by the state, intentionally and with premeditation wrack a family with grief?
I will be outside the prison as the hours and minutes tick towards 7 p.m., joining with hundreds of others, including Troy’s family, in prayerful protest. I will be thinking of the words that Troy asked my colleague, Wende Gozan-Brown of Amnesty International, to share when we visited him this morning:
“The struggle for justice doesn’t end with me. This struggle is for all the Troy Davis’s who came before me and all the ones who will come after me. I’m in good spirits and I’m prayerful and at peace. But I will not stop fighting until I’ve taken my last breath.”
As 7 p.m. approaches, I do not intend to picture Troy strapped onto a gurney. Instead, I will focus on the image which has been seared into my brain since December 2009: Troy standing in silhouette, arms outstretched and palms pressed against the iron grating. His mother’s hand pressed against his on one side, his nephew’s on the other, the rest of the family holding hands in between as he leads a circle of prayer, thanking God for the blessings they have received, and asking for the strength to continue the struggle for justice.
Jen Marlowe is a human rights activist, author and filmmaker. Her most recent book is “The Hour of Sunlight: One Palestinian’s Journey from Prisoner to Peacemaker” (Nation Books, 2011). She is the founder of “donkeysaddle projects.”