How did I end up on death row? It started in Alpharetta.
I believe progress is the expression of values. Our goals and the paths we take toward them reflect who we are. For my hometown of Alpharetta, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta, progress meant one thing: get money, no matter the cost. The 1990s had seen developers voraciously consume the open land, building for the influx of affluent me-first northern suburbanites who tripled the population during the decade. Houses grew bigger, their yards smaller. Trees disappeared, replaced with strip malls and parking lots. Roads, unable to keep up with the traffic of a town that grew much too quickly, were soon riddled with cracks and potholes. Some of us didn’t like the way the city was headed, but few did anything about it. We were no less guilty than the others, and we weren’t invested in the town’s fate. Alpharetta’s population had grown spectacularly, but it was no longer home for many people. Forbes called it the nation’s top Reloville, where people temporarily relocated for jobs and a low cost of living. There were no roots in Alpharetta, just SUVs. Our destiny was to grow without limit until the money ran out.
Life in Alpharetta was best described in the form of routines. I’d wake up for school each morning then groggily eat chocolate chip waffles. I would brush my teeth, make a faint attempt to tame the swathes of hair that had rebelled during my sleep, throw on a shirt and jeans, and walk down the hill to the bus stop. I was a good, if somewhat apathetic, student. I focused on reading and philosophical lunch discussions. I goofed off with friends and devoted any spare time to my competitive chess career.
After school ended, my mother picked me up and took me back to her apartment, as she did every weekday. She would lay dishes of rice, legumes, and potatoes on the table, and I would sit alone and gorge on a mountain of food while she returned to work on the computer. I then crawled to my mother’s sagging mattress to stupefy my mind with television, stirring only to flip channels during commercials.
My father would pick up my sister and me at night and drive us back to our house, where I surfed the internet for a few hours before going to sleep.
I spent weekends at chess tournaments and occasionally hanging out with friends. Sometimes I was alone in our messy, deteriorating house, which seemed so much larger and emptier after my mother moved out.
September 3, 2008.
I was watching TV when the phone call came.
“Hey, it’s Sahil. Do you have a second to talk?” Sahil was a childhood friend a few years older than me. While his parents and my mother had been friends for decades, he’d never called before. Why now? He lived too far away to see regularly, and we’d drifted apart over the years. I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d seen him.
“Sure,” I said. “What’s up?”
“Have you heard of Troy Davis?”
“He’s an inmate on Georgia’s death row, convicted of killing a cop in Savannah. There’s a lot of evidence that he’s innocent. I’ve been working on the case at Amnesty International for a while, and I visited Troy on death row. He’ll be executed in a couple of weeks, so I’ve been calling everyone I know to get them involved before it’s too late.”
I handed the phone to my mother and drifted away from the call. Plenty of death row inmates preached their innocence to all who’d listen. Surely, after decades of trial and appeal, the man’s innocence would have come to light. If he could lose in court time and time again, he must have been guilty. Far more likely that Troy Davis was lying than to have a faulty trial and faulty appeals. I shrugged it off and retreated to the bedroom to stupefy my mind with television.
But the topic resurfaced on the ride home from school a few days later.
“Remember what Sahil was saying, about Troy Davis?” my mother asked. The car remained motionless in Alpharetta’s rush-hour traffic. Her voice was somber, carrying a heavy weight. “I’ve been researching the case online. There are serious problems. Sahil was right.”
A Google search revealed Troy Davis was a black man convicted in 1991 of the 1989 murder of a white Savannah police officer, Mark MacPhail. His conviction rested primarily on nine eyewitness testimonies. Seven of those nine had recanted or altered their testimony, citing police coercion and intimidation. There was no physical evidence, no gun, and no DNA. It all sounded convincing on the surface. But if the evidence were as strong as Davis supporters claimed, why hadn’t the courts ordered a new trial? The claims Davis made of mistaken identity, shoddy evidence, witness tampering, a rushed and sub-par investigation, and a systematic denial of appeals on technicalities implied a legal system so brazenly unjust that they had to be false. Even Georgia, with its troubled history of segregation, lynchings, and race riots, couldn’t be so perverse. Not in 2008.
As I read through articles, one fact stood out: Georgia set the execution for September 23, 2008, but the Supreme Court was reportedly due to examine the case on September 29.
Why? The state had intentionally set an execution date days before the highest court in the country was to review the case. Troy Davis had been on death row for nearly two decades. What difference would a few more weeks make?
These questions brewed in my mind at school the next day. If the Supreme Court was going to review the case just six days later, if Troy Davis had already been on death row for seventeen years, if Georgia was so confident the evidence against Troy Davis was ironclad enough to kill him, why couldn’t they wait? There was no logical explanation for the state’s actions. Except . . . except that they wanted to kill Troy Davis before others could examine his case. But why should they care if others examine his case? They would only care if there was a chance they were wrong.
Could he really be innocent? And could that really happen here, in America? The justice system was a seamless machine—impartial, unemotional, and unerring. The machine’s input was the accused. There were two streams of output: the innocent, quickly and efficiently released; and the guilty, made to meet the highest bar of innocence until proven guilty and swiftly given a punishment fitting of the crime. Why would the machine operate like this? I struggled through my disbelief and confusion but couldn’t find answers.
In school we were always told the self-congratulatory story of the American system of justice, infused with lessons from the struggle for independence from the United Kingdom. The flagrant British disregard for basic liberties convinced our founders to secure the right to a trial by jury, a doctrine of innocent until proven guilty, and a system of appeals—safeguards we were told helped make us the greatest and freest nation in the world. The lynchings and segregation and race riots here in Georgia were now just fading words in textbooks. Those kinds of things didn’t happen anymore. We’d moved past them as a nation. America today was the land of the free, and the American legal system the envy of the world. We didn’t execute innocent people.
Besides, if someone committed a truly heinous crime, if they raped and tortured and gleefully killed innocent people, they didn’t deserve to live. The death penalty was the product of an implied social contract, a contract murderers violated. In doing so they forfeited their right to life, and their execution was morally justified. Perhaps it was a strange way for a fifteen-year-old to think, but how else could I reconcile the senselessness of murder with my belief that we were governed by cold, unerring logic?
The state motto—Wisdom, Justice, and Moderation—now seemed more a hollow, mocking reminder of what we really were than a declaration of what we aspired to be. Did we live in a world where we killed people for the sake of finality and call it justice?