What's Different About the Troy Davis Case? What's Different About the Troy Davis Case?
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What's Different About the Troy Davis Case?

by Nona Willis Aronowitz

September 23, 2011

Troy Davis, who was executed at around 11 p.m. EST today, died one of the most well-known death row inmates in U.S. history. Davis was sentenced to death for the 1989 shooting of a police officer, and in the years since, attention to his case had snowballed into an international outcry.

Supporters staged vigils across the country, including outside Georgia's death row prison in Jackson and at U.S. embassies in Europe. A Democratic state senator and U.S. House representative from Georgia called for prison workers to strike or use their sick days to avoid participating in the execution. Davis' lawyers offered to submit a last-minute polygraph test. The phone number of Judge Penny Freeseman, who issued Davis' death warrant, circulated on the Internet alongside pleas to call her up and make her change her mind. Facebook or Twitter users who didn't blog or rally in the streets posted updates on their feeds with the #TroyDavis hashtag. 

When two state officials call for civil disobedience on a court-mandated order, you know it's a big deal. But why did this case in particular draw so much attention? Countless death penalty controversies in recent years have failed to inspire global movements. Here's what was different this time. 

Nobody wants to see an innocent man die. Several recent death penalty cases have been focused on ensuring a prisoner's legal rights, regardless of innocence or guilt. Teresa Lewis, who was executed by the state of Virginia last year, was two IQ points shy of being classified as "intellectually disabled." This year, controversy over the execution of Humberto Leal focused not on his guilt but on the fact that police had not informed Leal of his right to call the Mexican consulate upon his arrest. Just a few days ago, Duane Buck's execution was halted in Texas due to the racially-biased testimony of a psychologist.

But Troy Davis' case involved seven separate witnesses changing or recanting their testimony, and a handful of jurors who say they have changed their minds about their determination of guilt. A murderer's right to a fair trial is one issue; the execution of a possibly innocent man is quite another.

The online grassroots movement is widely accessible. Activist blogs and online petitions have existed for years, but only recently has online activism become more accessible to less politically-minded users. It only takes a second to file a Facebook update or pick up on a hashtag on an iPhone. As the sheer number of regular people voicing their outrage accumulates, the technology can make a real difference in how media outlets cover an issue. 

Public opinion has been shifting for two decades. In 1995, an all-time high of 80 percent of Americans were in favor of the death penalty. Now, that figure has dropped to 64 percent, a significantly slimmer majority. And according to many, that pattern is only going to continue.

He wasn't dead yet. In 2004, Cameron Todd Willingham was executed after being convicted of setting a fire that killed his young daughters. It took nearly five years for new analysis—and a damning New Yorker piece—to surface, pushing the public to confront whether Texas governor Rick Perry had executed an innocent man. The case ignited widespread conversation over the morality and efficacy of the death penalty, but as for saving an innocent man's life? The damage had already been done. 

It will be interesting to see how this unprecedented movement—and this highly contested death—steers future discussion of the death penalty, particularly since leading presidential candidate Rick Perry has a similar controversy under his belt. Activists didn't succeed in stopping Davis' execution. But even though Troy Davis is dead, anti-death penalty advocates have come away with more ammunition—and experience—for the next fight.

This story was updated to reflect Troy Davis' execution.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user leftrightclick

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What's Different About the Troy Davis Case?