Five years ago

Five years ago today, my friend Troy Davis was wrongfully executed. One year ago today, I published Remain Free to share his story.

In that one year:

  • Remain Free beat out a New York Times bestseller written by a US president for the Georgia Author of the Year Award
  • Remain Free has been featured in NRI Pulse, India New England News, Khabar Magazine, and the Sunday edition of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Khabar Magazine, and India New England News
  • I’ve spoken at MIT, Cornell, UGA, Georgia State, Kennesaw State, high schools, Amnesty International groups, and CreativeMornings Boston (with a few more to come!)
  • I’ve met and talked to incredible people from all walks of life who share a passion for reforming our justice system, ranging from the parents of other teenagers who’ve befriended death row inmates to rappers, fashion designers, entrepreneurs, and everything in-between.

 

To mark the one year anniversary of the publication of the physical copy of Remain Free, the one many of you made possible, I just published the Kindle version so people all over the world can read it. As with the physical version, all profits will be donated to the Innocence Project.  And of course, the book can be read in serialized from for free on remainfree.com

In the end, this was to serve the mission of sharing Troy’s story with as many people as possible. A huge thanks to all of you who’ve supported this journey that began around this time eight years ago.

Remain Free Part II Section XIII

“People on the outside don’t realize prison life isn’t just three meals and a bed to sleep in. Prison life is a life of survival. The longer you’re in prison, the more hell you go through. A maximum security prison, where everybody is in there because they killed or raped someone, is a lot like a gang-infested area, where gangs are on every street corner and just wearing the wrong color can get you jumped. You have guards who keep things going, and guards who take it out on the inmates.

“Prison life isn’t easy at all. Sometimes you can carry yourself in a respectful way and you won’t have no trouble at all, but as soon as you let your guard down, there’s trouble right around the corner. The more time you spend in prison, the greater the punishment it is. It’s much worse than the death penalty. People on life without parole . . . it tears them down, it destroys them. Living in prison is hard. Dying is the easy part.”

“When the judge finally sentenced you to death, how did you feel?”

“He said, ‘Mr Davis, you will be executed by 20,000 volts of electricity until you are dead, dead, dead!’ I looked up, and it finally hit me: I’m going to death row. I’d already been convicted in the media before the trial. They all showed photos of me with the words ‘cop killer’ underneath. But when they sat in on the trial, even they started changing their statements. One newswoman even started crying with my mother when they sentenced me to death. How could they do this? How could they convict him? People in the courtroom were as baffled as I was. If they’re so sure of their verdict, why are they so afraid to do another investigation?”

“Because they know in today’s courtroom you’d never be convicted.”

“Ninety percent of the people who got reduced sentences from death row were completely guilty. So many guilty people get their sentences overturned on technicalities, but an innocent person is sent to death so they can protect the system. The Supreme Court doesn’t like granting new trials for death row inmates like me. They do it maybe one out of a hundred times.”

“And they gave Sylvester Coles immunity. They never even suspected him.”

“Sylvester Coles was in a court hearing for something else and a reporter found him. She told him that many people claim he actually committed murder and asked if he had anything to say or if he wanted to clear his name. You know what he said? ‘No comment.’”

“It amazes me that he’s been arrested so many times but never convicted.”

“They’re trying to protect their star witness. Convictions and prison time make him look bad. Years ago his mother apologized to my mother and gave her a hug. It was obvious he done told his family what he did! Even his relative, Ben Gordon came forward and admitted that Coles confessed to shooting the police officer. ”

“The media coverage seems much more balanced now. Martina said that wasn’t always the case.”

“When I was arrested and being taken to the police station, I smiled at one point to help keep calm and remind myself it was God who would liberate me, not man. The media pounced on that moment and plastered that photo of me all over, saying I smirked and was defiant. They built up this image of an evil black man who cheerfully murdered a white police officer and had no remorse whatsoever. The tone of the articles only started changing after Amnesty published its report on me and I started becoming famous. Many of the people supporting me now turned us down in the past when Martina and I kept writing them emails and letters asking for help. I’m grateful for their support, but I’m cautious because they rejected us years ago.”

“In the eyes of the justice system, you’re guilty till proven innocent now that you’ve been convicted.”

“The law has a loophole for inmates with physical evidence: DNA, blood, semen. They could be locked up for twenty-five years and find eleven-year-old DNA, and courts automatically be granting the new trials. But what about people who don’t have nothing to test? Here’s a case where witnesses claimed they could make out a black man in a dark jumpsuit with a fadeaway haircut at night from hundreds of feet away, and there’s nothing I can do? No fingerprints, no physical evidence. They made a mistake but don’t want to admit it, and I’m to be made an example of so they can save face. Twenty years on death row isn’t a joke. Nobody could have seen me from the motel from that distance with palm trees blocking the view. It could be sunny at noon and you still wouldn’t be able to tell. Yet the police can build a case based on that, take juvenile delinquents and illiterates and make them sign papers without their parents present just so they don’t get their asses kicked. Where’s the justice for me?

Previous: Part II, Section XII

Next: Part II, Section XIV


Purchase a hardcover copy of Remain Free on Amazon

Donate to support this project

Remain Free Book Discussion and Signing in Boston on May 16, 7:00 PM

I’ll be hosting a Remain Free book discussion and signing at Trident Booksellers (338 Newbury St
Boston, MA 02115) on Monday, May 16, at 7:00 PM! I’ll be reading several excerpts from the book and discussing the events within those excerpts in more detail, as well as the process of writing the book. Trident is Boston’s largest independent bookstore and they’ve got great food as well, so I hope to see you there!

– Gautam

Lincoln-Sudbury Resources

This is a companion page to the talk given at Lincoln-Sudbury High School on May 13, 2016. Included are the following resources:

You can purchase a hardcover copy of the book on Amazon, check out a copy from the school library, or read it for free here.

Two Years Ago

Troy Davis was executed two years ago today. I woke up shortly after sunrise. Today was gameday in Athens, Georgia, and as I hustled out of my apartment I saw families sprawled among dozens of red UGA tents, chatting excitedly and huddling around the television in anticipation of the big game. A few children were tossing a football back and forth, while a group of teenagers cackled as they played cornhole. There wasn’t time to join the festivities. I was already running late.

My mother flew in last night from Boston. Last year, it was just the two of us. This time we were joined by my father and my younger sister. It rained for the first hour of the drive, but occasional rays of sunshine poked through. As we passed Jackson, Georgia, I remembered the last time I was there, on this very day two years ago. The chants still resonated in my mind. I was transported back in time, an observer from the future watching as the hope and tragedy of that night unfolded.

We stopped at a rest area a little past the half way point.rest area

It wasn’t too far from Dublin, Georgia. The last time I was there was in 2010, when the staff and interns of Amnesty International and I stopped there on our way to the historic Troy Davis evidentiary hearing. Today I was clad in the same blue “ I Am Troy Davis” t-shirt that I first wore in Savannah during the hearing. I was only sixteen years old then, a bit chubby and sporting long, shaggy hair. But what I saw in the courtroom furthered my conviction that Troy Davis should not be executed.

As we continued to drive the rain cleared, and the grayness gradually gave way to blue.

savannah drive

We drove past a few farms, but the cotton fields stood out the most. The other crops gave way to shoots of bright, billowy cotton, as if a snow storm had delicately placed bundles of flakes upon each plant.

As we neared the city, we crossed Clarence Thomas interchange. I thought back to the spring of 2012, when Justice Thomas and I sparred over the case. He had voted against giving Troy the evidentiary hearing. He held no doubts that justice had been done with Troy Davis’s execution. And yet, he was also the one who issued the reprieve on September 21, 2011, the one that delayed Troy’s execution for another four hours.

We passed Savannah’s city hall. The building was grand and elegant. But it wasn’t by the Savannah boardwalk or park-like squares that dotted downtown. It was out here, in the Savannah hinterlands, surrounded by overgrown forest and weeds and a half empty strip mall with signs for a Subway and World’s Most Famous Asian Cuisine.

Magnolia Memorial Gardens was exactly the way I remembered it last year. The front office was a small hut, large enough to fit maybe a dozen people.

cemetary office

Last year we rushed to arrive before the staff left, so they could show us where Troy’s grave was. This year, September 21 fell on a Saturday, and the whole place was deserted.

savannah cemetary

As I thought about the first time I walked here, when Troy was first buried, my mother had already walked far ahead to Troy’s grave.

cemetary walking

The three graves were all there. Troy Davis.

Troy Davis grave

Buried beneath him, his mother, Virginia Davis.

Virginia Davis Grave

Buried beside them, Troy’s sister, Martina.

Martina Correia grave

We placed a note and blue flowers (Troy’s favorite color) on the grave and remained there for a few minutes.

gautam narula at grave

The only flowers on Martina’s grave were dead and wilted. The only ones on Troy and his mother’s grave were beginning to wilt and must have been there a few days.

My thoughts were similar to last year’s, so I won’t repeat them.

We began walking away from the graves. There was only one exit path.

exit path savannah

As I walked, keys in hand, I noticed a police car nearby. It had been sitting there, watching us the whole time. As we left I heard the car start up and drive off into the distance.

leaving grave

We began the long drive back. Less than an hour into the drive, the rain began. It bombarded the car, angrily striking the windshield and blinding my view.The sun had set and the two lane interstate had no lights. One of the lanes was closed for construction so all of the cars were crammed into one narrow, bumpy lane. The car began hydroplaning, skidding and swerving every few seconds as I desperately tried to maintain control. Other drivers were tailgating me and each other, apparently oblivious to fact that one small mistake could send us all careening into each other at 70 miles per hour. I was sleep deprived and hungry, and my eyes were straining to see the road amid the whirlwind of mist, rain, and headlight glare. We had four hours left to drive, and the rain was not expected to let up anytime soon. It was too dangerous to pull over–a skidding car could slam into us on the shoulder.

This wasn’t just about me. My father sat beside me, advising me as I drove. My mother and younger sister were in the back seat, blissfully ignorant about how much danger we were in. My life and the lives of my family were in the hands of other people and other forces. No matter how carefully I drove, I wasn’t in full control. Was this how Troy and Martina and Virginia felt, as their lives were eaten away by imprisonment and cancer? I thought back to the cemetery, where the three Davises lay, their lives all snuffed out in 2011. Would the same fate befall my family in 2013? I couldn’t shake the thought.

There’s nothing like a cemetery to make you feel stupid. Yes, stupid. This week had been a rough week for me. At least, I thought it had been a rough week. I seriously injured my eye during a game of frisbee, caught a cold that caused me to miss several important classes and miss a week at the gym, and had a stressful situation with a close friend. But seeing so many graves dug for so many young people makes you realize how petty most of your worries really are. I felt stupid for being angry at such minor things.  At the risk of being cliche, l was reminded that life is short, and I wasn’t making the best use of the time that remained.

When Troy was alive, we would talk about how to live life. Troy noted just how unhappy people outside of prison were. He looked at me sadly and said, “People out there are living to die. I’m dying to live.”

When we made it home safely, I resolved to renew my commitment to live life to the fullest. Tell people how you feel. Help others. Be adventurous. Follow your dreams. Remain free.