A Long Shadow of Doubt: The Execution of Troy Davis

September 21, 2011 was a sad day for American justice.

On that date at 11:08 pm, the state of Georgia administered a lethal injection into the body of 42-year-old Troy Davis and put him to death.

With his dying breath, Troy Davis maintained his innocence in the 1989 shooting death of off-duty Savannah police officer Mark Allen MacPhail. For 20 years, the shadow of doubt that hung over Davis’ conviction grew so large that it galvanized anti-death penalty advocates around the world, including the hundreds of citizens wearing “I am Troy Davis” T-shirts who kept a solemn vigil outside the Jackson, Georgia prison until the final hour.

Doubt's Long Shadow, OtherWords cartoon by Khalil BendibOver the last 20 years, the National Urban League and dozens of other prominent organizations and leaders argued that Davis’ conviction was in serious doubt. Seven of the nine witnesses who originally identified Troy Davis as the murderer later recanted their testimony. And no murder weapon or other physical evidence was ever found linking Davis to the crime.

That is why we joined the NAACP, the Congressional Black Caucus, Amnesty International, former president Jimmy Carter, Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu, Al Sharpton, former FBI Director William Sessions, Pope Benedict, former Georgia Rep. Bob Barr, and others in calling for Davis’ exoneration or at least further investigation.

The racial subtext of this case can’t be ignored. Davis, a black man, was convicted of killing MacPhail, a white police officer. While African Americans make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population, more than 42 percent of death row inmates are black. Over 75 percent of the murder victims in cases resulting in an execution were white, even though nationally only 50 percent of murder victims are white.

Since 1973, a total of 138 men and women have been exonerated or had their death sentences commuted based on post-conviction findings that proved their innocence — five of them in Georgia. “Seventeen people have been proven innocent and exonerated by DNA testing in the United States after serving time on death row,” according to the Innocence Project, a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people. “They were convicted in 11 states and served a combined 209 years in prison — including 187 years on death row — for crimes they didn’t commit.”

These disparities and problems cast a long shadow of doubt over our criminal justice system.

People of conscience can disagree on the death penalty, but it’s unconscionable by every standard to execute someone who very well might be innocent. Our hearts go out not only to Troy Davis’ family, but also to the family of Mark Allen MacPhail, who will never know for sure whether his killer was brought to justice.

Legendary Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall was unequivocally against the death penalty. He would have been a dissenter in the 11th-hour Supreme Court decision that allowed the execution of Troy Davis to proceed.

“When…the Supreme Court gave its seal of approval to capital punishment, this endorsement was premised on the promise that capital punishment would be administered with fairness and justice,” Marshall once said. “Instead, the promise has become a cruel and empty mockery. If not remedied, the scandalous state of our present system of capital punishment will cast a pall of shame over our society for years to come. We cannot let it continue.”

Justice Marshall felt, as I do, that as long as questions of equity, fairness, and fallibility persist, we must stop executions and give death row inmates every chance to prove their innocence.

Marc Morial is the president and CEO of the National Urban League www.nul.org