On September 21, 2011, Troy Anthony Davis, a 42 year-old man from Savannah, Georgia, was executed by lethal injection for the death of police officer Mark MacPhail on August 19, 1989. Davis, an African-American man convicted of killing a white off-duty police officer during an assault at a Burger King restaurant , maintained his innocence throughout his various trials and appeals. In Davis’ case, no murder weapon was produced and eyewitness testimony changed over time.
Ironically, on the same day, 830 miles away in Huntsville, Texas, Lawrence Russell Brewer was executed by lethal injection for the death of James Byrd, Jr. on June 7, 1998. Brewer, a white man convicted of dragging an African-American man behind a pickup truck for several miles until his head and limbs were ripped from his body, stated in an interview before his execution, “As far as regrets, no, I have no regrets. No, I’d do it all over again, to tell you the truth”.
Two men murdered, two men sentenced to die by lethal injection on the same day – the similarities seemingly make the cases ripe for comparison; however, beyond the coincidental time, date and method of their executions, there are few if any parallels between Lawrence Brewer and Troy Davis.
Perhaps the most profound difference between the two cases has been the involvement of national and international figures, activists and organizations on behalf of Troy Davis. Between June 25, 2007 when Davis’ first execution date was scheduled and September 21, 2011 when Davis was finally put to death, activists consistently rallied to his defense and attempted to spare his life. Petitions were signed, letters were written and demonstrations were held in the hopes that, by voicing public outrage and disapproval, Georgia state or federal authorities would intervene and halt the execution.
Davis’ appeals for a new trial based on questions surrounding the evidence and witness testimonies drew the support of several high-profile advocates. These included Monsignor Martin Krebs, an envoy for Pope Benedict XVI, who wrote a letter that signaled the pontiff’s opposition to Davis’ sentence and former United States President Jimmy Carter who requested clemency for Davis. In addition, Davis’ plight was championed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former FBI Director William Sessions, more than fifty members of Congress, the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International and thousands of individuals throughout the United States and across the world.
In Rome, Berlin, London and Paris, groups of international activists held demonstrations in front of the United States embassies to demand clemency for Davis. In Frankfurt, Brussels, Strasburg, Bologna, Toronto, Trondheim, Montreal and several other major cities, activists held vigils, teach-ins and rallies to express their opposition to Davis pending execution. While many of these events were organized through a loose affiliation of local Amnesty International chapters, others were relatively organic actions hurriedly planned by individuals and small groups after the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles denied Davis clemency on September 20, 2011.
The Davis case demonstrates how small groups of disconnected activists can coalesce around one particular issue or event even though their driving ideological, philosophical or moral beliefs may differ. For example, many involved in the demonstrations against Davis’ execution were motivated by a belief that substantial problems with the physical evidence and witness testimonies existed and, subsequently, a potentially innocent man was to be put to death despite the existence of reasonable doubt. Others rallying for Davis’ cause did so based on their absolute opposition to the death penalty regardless of the particular circumstances surrounding a case. Many of these activists, despite the different underlying motivations that led them to Davis’ defense, rallied around the unifying cry of “I AM TROY DAVIS”, whether printed on placards, embossed on t-shirts or simply chanted by activists. The construction of a sense of solidarity with Troy Davis and his case by individuals from across national, ethnic, racial, religious and political lines resulted in a powerful social force that helps to explain why the execution of Davis generated such outrage and opposition throughout the world. It is perhaps then the absence of such ideological, philosophical and moral convergence that offers some explanation as to why Lawrence Brewer and the 35 other men executed so far this year in the United States did not receive similar national and international support.
The outpouring of collective opposition to the execution of Troy Davis also provides insights into how international and transnational activism operates in a world increasingly connected through electronic communication, digital media and social networks. Using an array of organizational tools and structures, large transnational organizations, such as Amnesty International, politicians, religious leaders and concerned individuals were able to function independently yet towards a collective goal without any hierarchical structures, formal organization or established leadership. Twitter, Facebook, blogs, listservs, websites and talkback sections have increasingly become the tools to facilitate activism for disparate groups of people connected by a common cause; a trend that has been repeated throughout the political uprisings in Egypt, the formation of the Tea Party in the United States and the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ efforts currently underway in New York City.