By the time I turned my attention to Troy Davis, he was already wrapped in symbols. The symbols I saw were channeled through my usual lenses. On the cable news commentary shows that I tend to watch (because they affirm my beliefs) I saw the image of a healthy, vigorous, positive young black man in a collage of still photographs, mainly in somber black and white. In one, he wore a sweatshirt with a thick embroidered cross, raised and in a darker grey than the background fabric, but not as dark as Troy’s face. In another, this one in color, he wore a white t-shirt with a bright red logo. This photo was probably taken during some sweltering visiting day at the Georgia Diagnostic and Assessment Prison. The t-shirt logo was the word Jesus written in blood bright red in cursive letters that reminded me of a Cardinals Jersey. I saw images of Troy’s family members, fatigued, already grieving, although there was still some symbolic chance for Troy to live beyond this week. I saw defense lawyers and journalists of all ages and races straining to tell the story in a way that made sense to them, to give a moral ending to that story that would be some bittersweet blend of justice and mercy.
I also saw photographs of the young thin, eternally youthful “white” face of the man Troy was convicted of killing, Mark MacPhail. Beyond his face, I did not see him literally wrapped in symbols, as I did Troy Davis, but the symbols were there nonetheless. These were more the symbols of honor and duty than the symbols of faith. One of the police sergeants who commemorated him on the day Davis was executed said that MacPhail had died because of the badge and the uniform he wore. He was a police officer slain on his off-duty job of guarding a Burger King, in a society where it makes some kind of sense to guard a Burger King using guards who are moonlighting cops with guns. We have all seen them, men who are too wiry or too fat from years of stress, alcohol, nicotine, and stale coffee. I did not see Mark wearing a cross, or a Jesus t-shirt. On my usual channels and websites, I didn’t see photographs of Mark MacPhail’s family, but I knew they were out there. I knew there were flags and badges in the story that people were making for him since his death. Mark was not there to tell any story.
I heard and read stunning facts about the course of justice in the case. I learned that the scales of justice had been pushed several times to reset the balance, and it never stopped in Troy’s favor. Mark was not asking for reconsideration, at least not from anywhere that sends us news. I heard many people speak of Troy’s innocence and I knew that many people had testified to Mark’s heroism, valor, and charity in trying to break up a parking lot fight over a bottle of beer.
I heard an old colleague, Allen Ault, formerly Director of the National Institute of Corrections being interviewed on TV. Over a decade ago, Allen had sent me to my first professional job in the South. I was to conduct a training workshop on psychopaths in Montgomery Alabama, to an audience of criminal justice students and professionals. The local psychologist who acted as my guide in Montgomery drove me around all the major sights, but what sticks in my memory was inching down a residential street past a scorched white frame house. This was the home of former Governor George Wallace. It had been hit by a Molotov cocktail after Wallace had renounced the hard version of racism and came out against the Klan. My guide had explained that Wallace’s bodyguard and caretaker was a retired black state trooper. Although I had no wish to ever go back, I was long grateful to Allen for sending me down there. I learned something about the slow squeeze of institutional and cultural racism that eventually makes something pop, like an infected patch of acne that you just can’t keep your hands from trying to sooth and heal, all the while making it worse. It helped me understand why from 1690 to 1976, 49% of the executed were African American while 41% were European Americans, and why since 1976, the practice of frequent state-sponsored executions has become almost the exclusive province of former slave states or territories, which include all of the top seven (Texas, Virginia, Oklahoma, Florida, Missouri, Alabama, and Georgia).
Allen was asked during the TV interview, by a proud, self-proclaimed liberal commentator, if he thought Troy Davis was innocent. Wisely, Allen said he had no way of knowing that. He said he did know that there was no justification for our death penalty. I knew that the Pope had repeated his stand against the death penalty, and in this instance of it, so had any number of eminencies. I also knew that Troy Davis was going to die.
In the end, it was decided by the Supreme Court, as a matter of law, that there was no basis, no grounds, and no reason for intervention in Georgia’s enforcement of the law. Davis had presented no new evidence. Recanting witnesses were new evidence, but of what? Claims of police coercion against witnesses could have been investigated and confronted in the original trial and appeals. Hearsay of the confessions of an alternate suspect in the murder could have been made admissible as new evidence if the defense attorneys had confronted the man with his alleged words at a formal court hearing. Bottom Line: whether he was innocent or not, in fact, or morally, Davis was found legally guilty of an act that no one doubted was a crime.
I found myself thinking that all the symbols and many of the practices interwoven in this story were the same as in the Jesus execution story. Jesus was guilty as a matter of law. He had claimed some authority separate from Caesar, or so the witnesses said. He had claimed to be the son of God, or claimed to be some kind of god himself. These were all crimes punishable by death. Jesus had exhausted his appeals in a system not as elaborate and counter-balanced as ours, but which was its own kind of civilized justice machine, one that delivered justice much faster than ours. I also found myself thinking that Mark MacPhail was not here to put on Jesus t-shirts, or to be anything to those of us who did not know him but a flashing symbol of being wronged, and the less we knew about the details of his work and life, the more readily he became a symbol. I found myself thinking that Troy Davis had not seized and shaped the narrative, as liberal commentators are always saying Obama should do. Mark MacPhail was not here to try to shape any kind of narrative. Now, Troy Davis, like Jesus and Mark MacPhail, is no longer shaping a story. Through different doors, perhaps, they have entered the empire of symbols and images where they continue to exist through narratives containing their names, but shaped by the living.