Annette John-Hall: Troy Davis execution underscores risks of the death penalty

Posted: September 23, 2011

No doubt the tweets, links, and status updates that flowed nonstop from my Twitter and Facebook feeds this week helped school me about Troy Davis, the Georgia man sentenced to death for killing an off-duty police officer more than 20 years ago.

And though the information told us that seven of the nine witnesses had recanted their testimony; that a murder weapon had never been found; that there was not one strand of forensic evidence, the one thing we'll probably never know is whether Davis was wrongly accused.

On Thursday morning, I logged on to Twitter. Chillingly, the #WhoisTroyDavis hash tag had been replaced with #RIPTroyDavis.

Davis, 42, was executed by lethal injection late Wednesday after the Supreme Court rejected his plea for an eleventh-hour stay. Protesters tweeted blow-by-blow accounts of the scene outside, as scores of riot police took positions as the time neared for what had become sadly inevitable - information I almost couldn't bear to read.

I've said it before: I've got a moral problem with the death penalty. Plain and simple, it's barbaric. I don't care whether it's Davis, an African American who steadfastly proclaimed he did not murder Mark MacPhail, a white, off-duty police officer; or Lawrence Brewer, one of three white assailants convicted in the dragging death of James Byrd, who was murdered for being black. Brewer was executed in Texas, the capital-punishment capital, also Wednesday.

In fact, Texas has walked 475 people to slaughter since 1976.

See, punishment by death isn't justice, it's revenge. And if the state is going to sign off on killing, at the very least it had better make sure it's operating a flaw-free legal system.

If it can't guarantee perfection, then it shouldn't unstrap the gurney. It's as simple as that.

Go-to tool

Twitter has erupted as a go-to tool for breaking news, especially among young African Americans, who make up 25 percent of its users.

It's one of the reasons Twitter was a center of action on the Davis case.

Online petitions helped get Amnesty International and the NAACP close to 900,000 signatures on Davis' behalf. Loop21.com hosted a Twitter news conference to raise awareness. And hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons enlisted celebrities such as Kim Kardashian (nine million Twitter followers) to get the word out about Davis' plight.

Still, in the end, all the tweeting and posting in the world couldn't have saved Davis.

Social media may be good for galvanizing like-minded people and sharing real-time information, as it did during the Middle East uprisings.

But let's be real. Even the most informative 140-character tweets will do little to fix a racially biased legal system where, in the majority of cases, if the victim is white, the defendant is more likely to receive a death sentence, especially if said defendant is black and poor.

Davis' case symbolized a much more complex issue that could never be distilled into a tweet, says James Peterson, director of Africana studies at Lehigh University.

"We need to address the issue on all fronts - bias in the criminal-justice system, privatization of the prisons that incentivizes imprisonment, and a death penalty that is racist and classist," Peterson says.

The professor hopes the fire lit by the Davis case continues to burn.

"What's useful is that we can galvanize [on social media] in a way that we haven't before," he says.

Maybe. But honestly, I'm not so sure, given our constantly refreshing minds.

Case in point: On Wednesday, #WhoisTroyDavis was the No. 3 trending topic on Twitter.

By Thursday afternoon, #RIPTroyDavis had dropped from the list altogether.


Contact columnist Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986, Ajohnhall@phillynews.com, or @Annettejh on Twitter.

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