Troy Davis One Year Later: Execution Fuels National Movement to Abolish Death Penalty
We speak with three people who joined us for our special live broadcast on the night Troy Davis was executed in Jackson, Georgia, including his sister, Kimberly Davis. "This is a tough time both for me and my family, but as my brother said, he always wanted us to continue the fight and to keep the faith, and that’s what we’ve been doing," Kimberly Davis says. As Texas executed its eighth prisoner of the year Thursday, Californians are set to vote this November on abolishing capital punishment. We discuss the legacy of Troy Davis and how his case has fueled the anti-death penalty movement with NAACP President Benjamin Jealous and Laura Moye of Amnesty International USA. "We know that Troy Davis was not the first person who had not killed anybody to be put to death in this country, and he won’t be the last," Jealous says. Moye also gives us an update on the case of Missouri death row prisoner Reggie Clemons, whom many are comparing to Troy Davis.
AMY GOODMAN: Billie Holiday singing "Strange Fruit," the song written by Lewis Allan, by Abe Meeropol, about lynchings in the South. Every time Billie Holiday sang that song, she would have to throw up afterward, she used to say.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re on the road in Madison, Wisconsin. But we’re going to Washington, D.C., to be joined by our guests, three people who were there on the night of the Troy Davis execution and have since continued to work on the death penalty. Kimberly Davis is Troy Davis’s sister, and an anti-death penalty activist. Ben Jealous is president of the NAACP. And we’re joined by Laura Moye, Amnesty International USA’s death penalty abolition campaign director.
We welcome all of you back to Democracy Now! Kim Davis, I know it’s a hard day for you today, the first anniversary of Troy’s death. Can you share your thoughts on this year later?
KIMBERLY DAVIS: You know, this is a tough time both for me and my family, but as my brother said, he always wanted us to continue the fight and to keep the faith, and that’s what we’ve been doing, continuing the fight to end the death penalty, continuing the fight to clear his name, and we’re holding on to our faith and keeping our faith. And that’s what’s keeping us going strong today.
AMY GOODMAN: Ben Jealous, the NAACP, your organization, has long taken up the issue of Troy Davis but also the death penalty. So, on this day, what—think back to what happened a year ago, to tell us your thoughts and then where you’re going with this.
BENJAMIN JEALOUS: That was probably the hardest thing that I’ve been through in 20 years of organizing. We knew that Troy was—that he had not done this. I mean, the former head of George Bush’s FBI said there was too much doubt to execute—can’t get much better than that. We had switched one of the votes of the folks who said that they were going to vote for his execution on the Board of Pardons and Paroles. They came with us to vote for clemency. And then we were betrayed by the chairman of that board, who had said that his vote was with us and had voted with us in the past, a black former general, who gave us his word and then switched his vote. And it was absolutely heartbreaking.
Where we go from here is we do exactly what Kim said Troy wanted us to do: we push forward, and we end this death penalty, because we know that Troy Davis was not the first person who had not killed anybody to be put to death in this country, and he won’t be the last. And we—right now it’s on the ballot in California. We’re somewhat optimistic that we can pass Proposition 34 there. We’d ask folks to vote for that, if they are in California. And then on to states like Ohio and to Maryland, where it will be debated next year, and we hope to repeat the sort of victory we saw in Connecticut this year.
You know, when folks take a hard look at this punishment—and that’s what this case has really forced the country to do—again, they tend to run into the fact that our country has killed innocents before, and we will do it again. They also tend to run into the fact that, no matter how they feel about the death penalty as a theory, that practically every time a prosecutor seeks the death penalty, they pull hundreds of thousands of dollars out of our local criminal justice system, dollars that therefore cannot be spent, say, on the homicide unit and getting uncaught killers off the street. And given that we have counties in this country where 50 percent of the killings can go unsolved each year, we are much better off spending our dollars on catching uncaught killers than killing the killers we’ve already caught and put in cages. And so, our hope, our prayer, is that the country will continue to take a hard look at the death penalty and realize this is the moral thing to do and it’s also the thing that will make us safer. Abolishing the death penalty will put our country in line with the rest of Western democracies, but it will also make it safer because we can spend those resources on catching uncaught killers.
AMY GOODMAN: Laura Moye, your thoughts today, and also on an execution that’s about to take place in this country?
LAURA MOYE: Well, this is a day filled with a lot of emotion, mixed emotions. Troy Davis made the death penalty personal to people. His case turned people on to this issue who hadn’t been paying attention before. And to his family and him, we are eternally grateful. I think when the chapter—when the book on how we ended the death penalty in the United States is written, there will probably be a chapter about Troy Davis. When the state of Georgia executed Troy Davis amidst this cloud of tremendous doubt, it in many ways did more than we could do at Amnesty International or NAACP or any other organization to prove the point that governments ought not to have this power. But there’s good news in the year since Troy Davis was executed. There has been progress, and there continues to be progress and signs that show that we are ending the death penalty in the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: What are those signs?
LAURA MOYE: Well, in the last five years, five states have ended the death penalty, with Connecticut being the most recent. As Mr. Jealous has pointed out, 800,000 people in California signed petitions to put the death penalty on their ballot, and they have an opportunity to vote for Proposition 34 in November. That would replace the death penalty with life without parole and set up a fund to help solve all these unsolved homicides and rapes. The governor of Oregon declared a moratorium and said, while he is in office, he will not allow a single person to be executed, because of his discomfort with this very broken system. The number of death sentences and executions are at an all-time low.
The week after Troy Davis was executed, the Gallup poll measuring support for the death penalty in the United States was at a 40-year low. We are in a different era than we were 10, 20 years ago with this issue. We’re seeing tremendous progress, because people are coming to understand the reality of the death penalty, the ugly reality of the death penalty, how it doesn’t deter crime; it costs far more than incarceration; it is a distraction from effective means of dealing with crime; it is riddled with bias, racial and economic bias. And the list goes on.
AMY GOODMAN: Laura—
LAURA MOYE: It risks the innocent.
AMY GOODMAN: Laura Moye, I was wondering if you can talk about the case of Reggie Clemons in Missouri.
LAURA MOYE: Well, I just got back from St. Louis yesterday, sitting in on an extraordinary hearing that was ordered in the case of Reggie Clemons, a man on Missouri’s death row, who along with two other African-American men were sent to death row for the murders of two young white women, Robin and Julie Kerry. And there are some serious problems in how the investigation and trial unfolded in that case, serious allegations of police brutality to secure confessions and police—sorry, prosecutorial misconduct. A federal judge, in a review of that case, described the prosecutor as "unprofessional," "abusive and boorish." Those were his words. And so, there’s an important process underway. The hearing concluded yesterday in this case. And Mr. Clemons now has a special opportunity with this judge to seek relief from his death sentence. So this is another case that reminds us of Troy Davis, in the sense that there are many problems riddling the case, from allegations of police coercion, the lack of adequate legal defense, questions of racial bias. These are issues we see time and time again in the application of the death penalty.
AMY GOODMAN: Ben Jealous, you have appealed to the attorney general of Georgia to investigate Troy Davis’s case. How hard is it after someone has been executed? And then talk about what happened in Connecticut.
BENJAMIN JEALOUS: So, you know, the state has a real interest. And the state of course doesn’t want to look at this case; they just want to forget about it. But when the former head of George W. Bush’s FBI said that there was not enough evidence, that there was too much doubt to execute Troy Davis, what that’s also saying is that there’s reason to believe that the killer is still on the street. The state of Georgia has two interests in taking a hard look at this case. One is to make sure that they don’t make this sort of mistake again, and the other is to get the actual killer off the street.
Now, what happened up in Connecticut, a state that I had been traveling back and forth to for years, where we had seen prior—prior governors veto the bill when it was put on their desk, was two things. Two important things happened. One, we saw public support for the death penalty fall to an all-time low there, as well. But we also saw a new governor, who is a former prosecutor, stand up and say, "Look, you know, I used to support the death penalty. Then I became a prosecutor, and I saw what actually happened in these cases. And I’m proud to sign this bill."
And, you know, the—we’re seeing a similar thing in California, where the former district attorney of Los Angeles and the current state attorney general and the current governor are all saying, "We’ve looked hard at this, and we—you know, we may have used to support it, but we can’t support it going forward." And so, that’s what I think gives us hope, is that it’s not just sort of lefties or activists; it’s prosecutors, it’s attorneys general, it’s governors, who have to be very involved in the machinery of death in this country, looking hard and saying there’s too much bias, there’s too much doubt, we waste too much money, and as a result, we don’t solve enough homicides. So let’s get rid of this, and let’s get on with justice in this country and getting the uncaught killers off the street.
AMY GOODMAN: Kim, you have been traveling this country talking about your brother’s case. You’ve been in California. You’ve been in Connecticut. Are you feeling at all hopeful? I mean, your sister Martina, while she was alive, certainly not only championed Troy’s case but spoke out about the death penalty all over the country, and now you’re carrying that torch.
KIMBERLY DAVIS: Yes, ma’am, I am hopeful, and I know we will bring the death penalty down one state at a time. And we’re just asking everyone to join in on the fight with us, with our—we have elections coming up, and we need to look hard into the things—into people that are our elected officials, because they are just that: elected officials. We all need to reach out and let people know what we want. If we want to end the death penalty, stand on your word. We need everyone to stand together with the NAACP and Amnesty International as we continue to fight to end this death penalty.
AMY GOODMAN: And yet, both major presidential candidates, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, are not opposed to the death penalty.
BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Yeah, and that’s a real kind of tragedy. You know, I think—I think that folks know better, that President Obama knows better. But there’s been a rule in politics in this country that if you aspire to the highest office, you have to be pro-death penalty, no matter if you know better. We saw Bill Clinton actually execute somebody who had committed a crime as a juvenile. You know, he also sent someone to death—you know, he stopped when he was campaigning for president and executed three people. One of them was so retarded, was so mentally incapacitated, that he left his dessert in his cell and told his lawyer that he was saving it until he got back. And so, these men know better, and they need to start doing better.
What gives me hope is you see women like Kamala Harris, who has become the attorney general in California, saying explicitly she’s against the death penalty. Karl Rove targeted her in her campaign, thought that her opposition for the death penalty would take her out of the race and serious contention. And she won despite that. And that’s what we need. We need more people in this country who truly have the courage of their convictions to run for office. Be like the governor of Connecticut. Be like Ms. Harris in California. Stand up for what they believe and do the right thing, because the reality is that people in this country don’t lose faith in you when you take a hard stand on something that they may feel different about. They lose faith in you when they see you blowing in the wind.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, on another issue, the news this week in the Trayvon Martin case, Ben, about the DNA on the gun testing coming back, and it only has the DNA of George Zimmerman. The significance of this and where this case is today?
BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Look, this just affirms exactly what we’ve said from the very beginning. The Stand Your Ground law in Florida gave George Zimmerman the feeling that he could go out there and racially profile with lethal force, stalk and kill a young black man on the sidewalk for basically just being a young black man walking through the neighborhood. And, you know, it’s—George Zimmerman has lied to the court so many times, you know, I hope that the judge is taking that into account. This is a man who’s very dangerous, who needs to be off the streets. Justice needs to be done. We need to get rid of this Stand Your Ground law. We need to get back to being serious about keeping our community safe and our children safe.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Kim, there is a family event today. The Davis family is gathering in Washington. What is it that you have planned on this anniversary of Troy Davis’s execution?
KIMBERLY DAVIS: Well, just to continue to keep the people aware about the situation with the prosecutorial misconduct in my brother’s case, to keep the people aware of the fight that we are going to continue to clear his name. And we want to keep the people motivated, always, to stand with us to end the death penalty. And that’s what we want to do, just keep them motivated, clear my brother’s name, and keep the fight going.
AMY GOODMAN: Ben, the Congressional Black Caucus is having their caucus today. Michelle Obama is going to be addressing the issue of voter suppression. Is anyone going to be talking about the death penalty?
BENJAMIN JEALOUS: You know, I do suspect that it will come up on some of the justice hearings that are going on, the panel discussions about criminal justice issues. There will be a lot of talk about voter suppression this year, because we’re in a real tidal wave, as you know, across this country. The good news is that we’re turning the tide there, just as we’re turning the tide on the death penalty.
You know, the same group of folks who are speaking here today, we’re all part of a group of people who have abolished it for juveniles in this country. We’ve also abolished the death penalty for the group that the court refers to quite bluntly as the "mentally retarded." We’ve used the same strategy there that we’re going to use here. We got a majority of states to outlaw those practices, and then we went to the Supreme Court. We said, "Not only is this cruel, but because it’s now only practiced by a minority of states, it is also unusual, and therefore ban it for the entire country." And they did in both cases. And so, we’re hoping here that if we can get rid of it in California, if we can get rid of it in Ohio, if we can get rid of it in just seven more states beyond that, then we can finally go into the Supreme Court and get rid of it in Georgia and get rid of it in Texas and Mississippi and all these places that, when it comes to their practice of the death penalty, are truly godforsaken.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to end this segment with a clip of Troy Davis’s older sister, Martina Correia, who was speaking to us at his funeral last October.
MARTINA CORREIA: And they’re probably looking down on us, asking us what our next move is, but I think he already knows, because this weekend has been such a powerful weekend, to see so many people come together and want to stand and fight and want to change the laws. And we’re going to go to the Georgia State Capitol, and we’re going to start working on that gold dome. And they’re going to have to listen to us, because we’re their constituents, and we voted them in, and we can vote them out. And I know that’s one thing that we’ve had to learn, that we have to make people accountable who are speaking on our behalfs. And Troy made us all look within ourselves, and he made us see that there’s goodness in all of us and that all of us have to continue to fight.
AMY GOODMAN: Martina Correia, speaking on October 1st of last year. She died two months later of breast cancer. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org,The War and Peace Report. Back in a minute.