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The Execution of Troy Davis Provides Another 'Haunting Reminder of Once Prevalent Southern Lynchings' | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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The Execution of Troy Davis Provides Another 'Haunting Reminder of Once Prevalent Southern Lynchings'

“I am innocent,” said Troy Davis, moments before the the state of Georgia put him to death.

The state-sanctioned slaying, which former President Jammy Carter characterized as “a grave miscarriage of justice,” was completed at 11:08 pm EST.

Before the execution, the man whose case inspired an international outcry against not just the death penalty but a dysfunctional “justice” system told the witnesses at the Georgia Diagnostic Prison facility: “The incident that night was not my fault. I did not have a gun.”

Addressing the family of, Mark MacPhail, the off-duty Savannah police officer he was accused of killing, Davis said he was sorry for their loss. Then, he said: “I did not personally kill your son, father and brother. I am innocent.”

To those who battled to save his life, Davis urged continued investigation, inquiry and struggle for justice. "All I can ask... is that you look deeper into this case so that you really can finally see the truth," he said moments before the execution.

The killing of Davis took place after US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, a Georgia native, led the High Court in rejecting a plea that the killing be blocked. There were no dissents from the other justices on the current Court.

But it is important to underline the word “current.”

Former Justice John Paul Stevens, who left the High Court last year, has argued in recent statements and interviews that the death penalty is “unconstitutional.”

In particular, he cited evidence confirming that African-Americans who are charged with murder (such as Troy Davis) are dramatically more likely than whites to be executed.

The General Accounting Office has concluded that "in 82 percent of the studies [reviewed], race of the victim was found to influence the likelihood of being charged with capital murder or receiving the death penalty, i.e. those who murdered whites were more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered blacks," while former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold, the long-time chair of the Constutution Subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Commitee, has said that: "We simply cannot say we live in a country that offers equal justice to all Americans when racial disparities plague the system by which our society imposes the ultimate punishment." 

The American Civil Liberties Union notes that  "systemic racial bias in the application of the death penalty exists at both the state and federal level," and it notes historic patterns of discrimination in particular states such as Georgia—highlighting the classic work of University of Iowa law professor David Baldus, who found that during the 1980s prosecutors in Georgia sought the death penalty for 70 percent of African-American defendants with white victims, but for only 15 percent of white defendants with black victims. (Troy Davis' case traces back to an incident in 1989.)

The patterns of discrimination, noted Justice Stevens, “provides a haunting reminder of once prevalent Southern lynchings.“

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