In August, the Supreme Court responded to the Davis team’s appeal. In a 6-2 vote, with newly seated Justice Sotomayor abstaining and Justices Scalia and Thomas dissenting on a “sure loser” innocence claim, the Court granted an evidentiary hearing to determine if Troy Davis could “clearly establish” his innocence. The hearing would take place in Troy’s hometown and Georgia’s oldest city, Savannah.
Savannah, located on the coast of southeast Georgia, was founded in 1733 by James Oglethorpe. Oglethorpe had just established the colony of Georgia with hopes of making it an outlet for impoverished debtors languishing in British prisons. He set about creating a planned, egalitarian city replete with self-sustaining yeoman farmers, optimally placed town squares, and a prohibition on slavery. But few debtors ended up in Georgia, and once Oglethorpe returned to England, the colony quickly began importing slaves. During the Civil War, General William Tecumseh Sherman’s destructive March to the Sea ended with the capture of Savannah, inspiring hatred in Southerners even to this day. An acquaintance, born in a town razed by Sherman’s troops and steeped in the culture of the Deep South, despised Louisiana State University solely because Sherman had been its founding president. I had only been to Savannah once when I was seven years old and retained little from the trip other than hazy memories of the beach.
Troy’s voice crackled through the phone. We’d just spoken about the Supreme Court decision, but I wanted to know about Savannah.
Troy: “When I left the street, drugs were beginning to get big, but Savannah didn’t have no gangs. Now it probably has a dozen. They gave me the death penalty with the idea that it would deter crime. If that’s the case, how come you got more drugs in Savannah than ever before? How come you have more gangs in Savannah than ever before? How come you got more robberies, more burglaries, more rapes? Since I’ve been on death row, Savannah has gotten so bad that people are moving out to the suburbs, to the edge of the county. Drugs and violence have captured and suffocated the whole city. This whole state is filled with drugs, murder, gangs, and chaos. The death penalty isn’t deterring anything.
“I grew up in a neighborhood called Cloverdale. It was a young middle-class neighborhood, full of good people. We had teachers, police officers, nurses . . . it was a fairly privileged place. Everyone in our community knew each other. It was the kind of place where parents would watch each other’s kids. We used to be real close with many of the neighborhood kids, but as we grew up and drugs started seeping in, they started getting involved in the wrong things. As Savannah became more violent and drug-infested, the violence came to us as well.”
Gautam: “How did drugs change day-to-day life?”
Troy: “When drugs hit Savannah, it was like everyone I knew started selling or using. Every time I went out with friends, somebody was trying to jump them. One time I was riding in the car with some friends and all of sudden somebody started shooting at us. I got out of the car and ran as fast as I could. When I got home, I told my mama, ‘One of these days I’m going to get killed. I gotta leave Savannah.’ For four months I said I was going to leave Savannah. I was constantly working and saving my money so I could move. Now it seems like I stayed in Savannah one day too long.”
I struggled to understand Troy’s words, as the new “upgrade” to the GDCP phone system had caused the already-poor audio quality to further disintegrate. Troy believed it was an intentional attempt of the prison to restrict communication with the outside world.
Gautam: “What’s the neighborhood like now?”
Troy: “I asked Lester a few weeks ago if kids play outside in the neighborhood like we used to. He said parents don’t let their kids outside. He knows there are kids around because he sees them in the morning waiting for the bus. When I was coming up, every kid on our street played hopscotch, basketball, football, basketball, even tennis. We used to play at the baseball diamond at the park. Martina said she doesn’t go to that park now, because it’s too violent, too dangerous. She don’t know the kids there, and they’re always starting trouble. The neighborhood is going downhill and there’s so much crime, so much lack of trust, that it’s hard for parents to feel comfortable.”
I thought about my own neighborhood in Alpharetta. We had a pool, tennis courts, and basketball hoops. My house was nestled in a cul-de-sac that insulated my friends and me from traffic, allowing us to play baseball and Frisbee on the street.
Our early youth, from age five to ten, was the sunrise of our lives. We were pioneers, exploring the grounds of our neighborhood, trying out a new video game during a sleepover, reading a new book, making up a new game with tennis balls and chalk, or chasing wild animals into the creeks running through our back yards.
Each day we awoke wiser from previous day’s adventures. We never worried about our safety and neither did our parents. There were no drugs, no gangs, no robberies, no guns or murders in Alpharetta.
Gautam: “Do you still talk to any of the people from your neighborhood?”
Troy: “Martina has been trying for years to reach out to Savannah communities, communities of color, and the African American community. They would always reject her and threaten her for leaving pamphlets. Now that I’m famous, they’re reaching out to her and saying they want to help.”
Gautam: “Did you ever think in the years before you were arrested that your life could lead to this?”
Troy: “When I tried to rejoin the church to get my spiritual body set right, I looked at it as though Satan said, ‘Wait a minute, you were doing everything I wanted you to do and ignored God all these years, and now you’re going to turn away from me and turn to God?’ And that’s when roadblocks were put up in front of me. And here I am, on death row. I should’ve known something like this could happen. God gives you signs, and if you never slow down and pay attention to those signs, bad things are gonna happen.”
Gautam: “How did you meet Redd Coles and people like him?”
Troy: “Redd stayed in the neighborhood where my aunt lived. I didn’t really know him that well personally, but I knew his younger sister because we went to the same high school. He came from an underprivileged family and lived in the projects. There were rumors that he was involved in another shooting in the late seventies. But rumors are all it ever amounted to.”
Kavita: “How did you start moving around with these kinds of people? Priya hangs around with a bad crowd . . . most of them grew up with single parents, and many were pregnant by fourteen. She says they’re not bad people, just that they’ve grown up in tough circumstances.”
Troy: “I was a straight-A student. But I wanted to hang with the cool crowd because they got all the attention. That was one of my biggest mistakes. I started slacking off in class. But growing up I was very shy and very quiet. I seldom had something to say when people were cracking up. Priya needs to realize that as kids we can’t make all the right decisions, and that you, her father, Gautam, and your other daughter are her true friends. Soon she’ll realize . . .”
Gautam: “She makes friends easily, but they’re all shallow relationships. I prefer a few close friends to a bunch of distant ones.”
Troy: “Gautam, you remind me of myself when I was younger. I was a quiet kid like you. I was shy. The difference is that you have a way to express yourself through your writing. I, well, I made some poor choices because I wanted to be accepted. I didn’t make good choices of who to run around with. And now all of my friends are either dead or in jail. You should surround yourself with better and more intelligent people. That’s why, when I get out, I want to mentor young people. I don’t want them to make the same mistakes I did. Most of my so-called friends weren’t true friends. Gautam, the question you should ask yourself is whether your friends will talk behind your back when you hang out with someone else. When I had a car, plenty of friends wanted to hang with me. But after I was arrested, they all left. And my so-called friend Redd Coles was the one who got me into this mess in the first place.”