It was hardly a surprise that my favorite songwriter/actor/novelist Steve Earle got involved in activism surrounding the execution of Troy Davis by the state of Georgia last week. He was among the many celebrities who signed the petition calling on the state to grant Davis clemency. Earle told an interviewer, “My deal with Troy Davis and everybody else like that is: I’m opposed to the death penalty for anybody. It’s a big deal, that possibility of a person being innocent and being executed.” But politicians afraid to look weak keep the death penalty in place in America, he charged.

Earle, now 56, is no latecomer to the cause.

In fact, he has probably been the most consistently outraged and active in the musical world (especially with the passing of Johnny Cash) since the early 1990s when he penned his first protest song, “Billy Austin.”  Later he wrote “Ellis Unit One” about prison personnel “putting down” prisoners in Texas (it was used for the Dead Man Walking soundtrack) and then “Over Yonder (Jonathan’s Song),” about a death row prisoner he befriended. That man, Jonathan Nobles,  asked Steve to witness his execution, and Earle agreed to do it—a rarity among celebrities—and, then wrote about it brilliantly (as I recount in my new e-book, Dead Reckoning).

Earle, who spent his own stint in prison on drug charges, has also performed at numerous anti–death penalty benefits and joined activists camping out overnight outside the US Supreme Court. In 2010 Earle was awarded the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty’s Shining Star of Abolition award.

I interviewed Earle (one of my favorite songwriters going back to “Guitar Town”) about all of this a few years ago, and in meeting him a couple of times since he always brings me up to date on his efforts—although he’s also been very active in Farm Aid and with the Stop Landmines campaign, among others. He even had a weekly show on Air America a few years back. And in December he will sing and talk (along with wife Allison Moorer) during The Nation’s annual cruise

Somehow Earle has found time to move to New York City and Woodstock with swell singer Moorer, appear as an actor in The Wire and Treme (though he got killed off in a key plot point last season), and keep on touring and recording (his tribute to Townes Van Zandt won him another Grammy).

A few years ago, I was delighted when Steve told me that he was working on a novel—he had just published a collection of short stories—loosely inspired by the infamous “Dr. Toby” who “treated” Hank Williams just before he died at the age of 29. That resulted in Steve’s new novel, with the title taken from Hank’s final single, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive (also the title of Earle’s latest CD).

Still, one of his most important pieces of writing remains a lengthy account of witnessing his friend Jonathan Nobles’s execution, first published by Tikkun and then widely elsewhere (an excerpt closes my Dead Reckoning book).

Minutes from death, Nobles had told Earle, “Steve, I can’t believe that I had to go through all this to see you in a suit coat.” Here’s how Earle concluded his piece.

When he finishes reciting he takes a deep breath and says: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” The warden, recognizing the prearranged signal he and Jon had agreed on, nods toward the unseen executioner and Jon begins to sing.

“Silent night / Holy night…”

He gets as far as “mother and child” and suddenly the air explodes from his lungs with a loud barking noise, deep and incongruous, like a child with whooping cough. “HUH!!!” His head pitches forward with such force that his heavy, prison-issue glasses fly off his face, bouncing from his chest and falling to the green tile floor below.

And then he doesn’t move at all. I watch his eyes fix and glaze over, my heart pounding in my chest and Dona squeezing my hand. Dead men look… well, dead. Vacant. No longer human. But there is a protocol to be satisfied. The warden checks his watch several times during the longest five minutes of my life. When the time is up, he walks across the room and knocks on the door. The doctor enters, his stethoscope earpieces already in place. He listens first at Jon’s neck, then at his chest, then at his side. He shines a small flashlight into Jon’s eyes for an instant and then, glancing up at the clock on his way out, intones: “6.18.”

We are ushered out the same way we came, but I don’t think any of us are the same people who crossed the street to the prison that day. I know I’m not. I can’t help but wonder what happens to the people who work at the Walls, who see this horrific thing happen as often as four times a week. What do they see when they turn out the lights? I can’t imagine.

I do know that Jonathan Nobles changed profoundly while he was in prison. I know that the lives of people he came in contact with changed as well, including mine. America’s criminal justice system isn’t known for rehabilitation. I’m not sure that, as a society, we are even interested in that concept anymore. The problem is that most people who go to prison get out one day and walk among us. Given as many people as we lock up, we better learn to rehabilitate someone. I believe Jon might have been able to teach us how. Now we’ll never know.

The full title of Greg Mitchell’s new e-book is Dead Reckoning: Executions in America. He previously wrote, on the same subject, Who Owns Death? with Robert Jay Lifton.