When Troy Davis was executed at a Georgia state prison in September, several hours after the Supreme Court deliberated (and denied) an emergency appeal, people around the world looked on in shock. Activists, convinced that there was too much doubt surrounding his murder conviction, including the fact that seven of nine witnesses later recanted their original testimony, had rallied for weeks, months and years on his behalf.
While many of those advocates are working to keep the name “Troy Davis” alive, in his emotional death they are also focused on another goal: abolishing the death penalty. With a global movement galvanized around the Davis case — which reflected the arbitrary nature of the death penalty, as well as the role that race and class often play in executions — they contend that now is the prime moment to surge forward in stamping out the practice.
If it seems like the death penalty and an American penchant for “eye for an eye” justice are here to stay, here are reasons that leaders on the issue say its abolition is possible.
Despite the common assumption that the death penalty has been a constant throughout American history, the practice has fallen in and out of public favor, with a spotty presence over the years. In the wake of 1972’sFurman v. Georgia case, which involved a black man convicted of armed robbery and murder, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that death sentences are handed down arbitrarily, thus violating the Eighth Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment. The high court suspended capital punishment in the country from 1972 to 1976, with no executions during this period.
The door was left open for a comeback, however, by the argument that the death penalty could be constitutional if it were applied equitably. In 1976, as states returned with new laws designed to fix these concerns, the by-then more conservative Supreme Court ruled that the country could use the death penalty again.
“But it’s no less arbitrary and capricious now than it was in 1972,” Laura Moye, Death Penalty Abolition Campaign coordinator for Amnesty International, told The Root. “It’s really up to the justices to take a hard look, and right now there’s too much of a comfort level with the brokenness of the system.”
Even so, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church and longtime anti-death penalty activist, is encouraged by the fact that the practice is used less frequently. Texas, which leads the nation in executions, executed 17 people in 2010, down from 40 in 2000. “It’s been all but abolished in the United States before, and it can happen again,” he told The Root, though he conceded that moving the needle of public opinion will be difficult at a time of high unemployment and “the mindset of scapegoating the other,” as people struggle for basic needs. “It’s going to be hard fought, but the momentum is moving in that direction.”
2. It may all come down to 10 states.
For the past 15 years, anti-death-penalty advocates have taken a gradual, state-by-state approach to prove that capital punishment is cruel and unusual. The less it’s used, the argument goes, the more unusual it becomes. And if it’s outlawed in a simple majority of 26 states, then the case of unconstitutionality could be viably made to the Supreme Court. With 16 states having already abolished the death penalty, there are 10 to go.
Based on a legal “evolving standards of decency” doctrine, the same strategy has been effectively used in the past decade to abolish the death penalty for juveniles and the mentally disabled. “The important thing is that this didn’t start out as a 10-state strategy,” Benjamin Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP, and former program director for the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, told The Root. “Within the past two years, we’ve abolished the death penalty in Illinois, New Jersey and New Mexico. Just two years ago this was a 13-state strategy. That’s part of why we’re confident.”
Low-hanging fruit that activists hope to add to the list soon are Maryland, Connecticut and California. Maryland placed a moratorium on the death penalty in 2006, and this year lawmakers introduced a bill to fully repeal it. An anti-death-penalty bill in Connecticut was two votes shy this year, but advocates are eyeing 2012. In California, signature gathering is under way for a 2012 ballot measure to abolish capital punishment and redirect the millions spent on death-penalty cases to solving rapes and murders.
Jealous says these are all pieces of a national trend. “It was significant that the Gallup poll last October showed the lowest level of public support for the death penalty since 1972, when it was suspended,” he said. “We see the death penalty falling state by state across the country, just as it’s fallen country by country around the world. We’re the last Western power that maintains a death row, and it’s time for us to catch up with the rest of the world.”
3. The American “Wild West” mentality is wearing away.
For all the movement’s discussion of a changing tide in public opinion, a majority of Americans still favor the death penalty. According to the same October 2011 Gallup poll that Jealous mentioned, 61 percent of Americans approve of using capital punishment for persons convicted of murder. As Texas Gov. Rick Perry put it at a Republican presidential debate in September, after receiving wild applause for his execution record, “I think Americans understand justice.”
Moye, on the other hand, sees nuances when you look more closely. “I don’t actually think that retributive justice is strongly rooted in U.S. culture as much as the concept of fairness is,” she said. “When you start to talk to people in this country about alternatives to the death penalty that include ways that the offender can be held accountable, or provide for restitution to the murder victim’s families — and we can ensure that they’re not going to be a future threat to society if they are truly not somebody who can be rehabilitated — then you start to see that more people support those alternatives. They’re not bloodthirsty.”
The Gallup poll also found that 41 percent of Americans believe the death penalty is applied unfairly, and attitudes on the practice vary significantly between people of color and whites. While 68 percent of white adults polled favored the death penalty, support plummeted to just 41 percent among nonwhites.
“In our community, we face so many issues that people want to know that they can win before they really invest themselves,” said Jealous, on where he thinks many African Americans stand on the subject. “What we saw with Troy Davis and the tidal wave of public opinion against that execution, and against the death penalty itself, not only gave us hope that we can win, but that there’s no choice but to win. This is just a vestige of a dying social order that has to be stamped out.”
4. The movement is bigger, now more than ever.
Although the modern U.S. movement against the death penalty — including advocacy by the NAACP and other African-American-oriented groups — has been a decades-long battle, the execution of Davis in September was definitely a critical tipping point.
“When they write the book on how the death penalty was abolished in the United States, there will be at least a chapter about Troy Davis,” said Moye, who saw unprecedented traffic at Amnesty International’s Troy Davis Campaign website, including, this year alone, nearly a million signatures on petitions protesting his execution. “Troy Davis was making news everywhere, with people holding vigils and protesting all over the world. This was a turning point for a lot of people who weren’t really tuned into the death penalty before, where they started to understand the issue on an emotional level.”
But will the momentum last or fizzle out? “That’s really up to the movement that’s been built up around Troy Davis, and those of us who have some leadership responsibility,” said Moye. “We’re trying to keep the name of Troy Davis alive, but also to put the spotlight on prisoners like Reggie Clemons in St. Louis, and other stories of people who represent the worst of what is happening in this system.”
Warnock, who prayed with Davis on his final day on death row, said that it’s critical for those who advocated for Davis to continue organizing around abolition of the death penalty. “Although we hoped to save Troy, and we were sincerely fighting to save his life, we always knew his death was a real possibility. But he continued to fight, not just for his own life but on the issue of the death penalty itself,” he said. “In his last words right before his life was taken, he said he was innocent. He encouraged those who had been involved to continue looking into this case. He was an activist to the very end.”
Cynthia Gordy is The Root’s Washington reporter.