My idea of death row was Alcatraz blended with the gulag. I imagined death row to be dark and dank, filled with angry muscular men, killers and rapists who were destroyers of lives and families. They seemed more beast than human, and the only glimpse of humanity came from the mugshots in newspapers and nightly television broadcasts. I imagined visitors closely packed along a clear, Plexiglas wall, huddled around phones connecting them to the group of surly men on the other side, each surrounded by guards.
But there were no Plexiglas walls, not yet anyway. No phones either. And the men didn’t look angry—they were smiling, laughing. I was in an open room with twenty maximum security inmates, and there were only three guards. Everything was white—the walls, the jumpsuits, the microwave—everything except the yellow bars dividing the room from the other segments of the prison. Before, everyone in here was just a mugshot and a name written in fine newsprint. But now, as I saw them talking and smiling and laughing and crying, no different than me, it was inescapable that they were . . . human.
These were bodies and souls that had known loss and love, cruelty and kindness, pain and joy—beings that had known life. They had minds where thoughts flickered like a candle in the dark, a bright light in an empty, lifeless universe. It was a marvel for them to be, for they were each the product of a series of astonishingly unlikely events. On a cosmic scale, their existence in itself was a miracle among miracles.
As I walked down narrow corridors, I thought about how I got here. It all started with a letter.
September 24, 2008
Dear Mr. Troy Davis,
I remember the first time I heard about your case was when my friend Sahil had worked with Amnesty International on your case. Only about three weeks ago, I was first informed from my mother, who had been informed by Sahil, about the case. As the case unfolded, I was horrified at seeing that despite huge holes in the case made by the prosecution, the Georgia Department of “Justice” was intent on keeping you in prison and executing you. I joined the thousands of others, from Sahil to Jimmy Carter, from my mother to the Pope, in hoping that your execution would not go through. It scared me. It frightened me to find out that despite thousands of letters, rallies, and emails, the Georgia Board of Paroles did not change their decision to deny you clemency.
But what I found most chilling was Monday’s Georgia Supreme Court decision to deny you a stay of execution, on the grounds that it wasn’t “in their jurisdiction”. What if the Supreme Court hadn’t called an emergency session on Tuesday? I remember asking my father, “What kind of people are these justices, who would rather let a man die than “step out of their jurisdiction”? For that matter, why was the State in such a rush to execute you, instead of waiting six more days for the Supreme Court decision? This makes me think that the Justice System is either racist, foolish, or remarkably devoid of basic human justice and compassion.
I have a confession to make. I am currently 15 years old. When I was 10, I made the decision to become atheist. For 1/3 of my life, I had denied the existence of God. But when I heard about your case, I, for the first time in 5 years, and perhaps even for the first time in my life, truly prayed for you. I thought science had rendered God obsolete, that science was the true path to knowledge. I thought that any God would not allow the poverty and earthquakes and exploitation and tsunamis and pain in the world. I was 10 years old and I had already become cynical about the world.
But was it science that called the Supreme Court to convene an emergency session? Was it science that made the judges decide, less than two hours before your execution, to grant you a stay of execution? While I was at school that day, I worried the entire day about whether the Supreme Court would step in and save you. I hadn’t had a great day at school; I had lost my cell phone and had stayed up late finishing homework which I later found out wasn’t due that day. Coupled with your pending execution, I was tired and depressed when I got home from school. However, half an hour later, my father told me that the Supreme Court had granted you a stay of execution. Suddenly, all those things didn’t matter. My heart skipped a beat, and I excitedly picked up the phone and called my mother and told her, though she already knew. At that moment in time I realized that there are things that science can’t explain. After 5 years, one simple piece of news had shattered my atheistic beliefs. I don’t know what I believe now, but I do know that I cannot confidently or honestly deny the existence of God.
I have tried to do all I can to help you; I wrote an email to the White House, and signed the Amnesty International petition. I posted links to my mother’s article and the amnesty international page on my Facebook page. I sent out an email to all my contacts, even the people I didn’t know who had somehow come onto my contacts list. I told all my friends at school, and told them how they could get involved. You have inspired me, Mr. Davis. You have inspired me to believe that one person can make a difference, that people can maintain their faith even in the worst of conditions. You have inspired me to believe in the goodness of man, to look past the cynicism of the world. You have insured that I never walk down the path of apathy to people in situations like yours. You have insured that my heart never becomes cold or hard, that I never walk past someone in need ever again. While before I wasn’t sure where I stood, you convinced me to be firmly against the death penalty. You have inspired me to be better person, and for that I thank you.
When I heard your interview on my mother’s website, I was moved by words. How could a man, who has been wrongfully imprisoned for 20 years, who could possibly die in a matter of hours, not feel bitter or angry about where he was and who had done this to him? As I write this, my mother is stuffing letters to each Supreme Court Justice giving the facts of your case and a letter urging them to review your case. I was disappointed that neither John McCain nor Barack Obama had the courage to stand up for you, that they cared more about their political careers than they did about the fate of a convicted cop killer. Just remember that no matter what happens, my family and I will always have you in our thoughts, our minds, and our prayers. Remember that we will do everything we can to support you and your family throughout this time. And remember that no matter what the Supreme Court decides, you are Troy Davis and you are an innocent man. And that is something that no Court can ever take away from you.
With love and most sincerely yours,
Gautam R. Narula
My words were uncertain. What do you say to someone who just came within two hours of death? I pieced together what little I knew about Troy Davis. He’d steadfastly proclaimed his innocence all these years. He was a man of faith. And he and his family were told the exact day, time, and method of his death. So I wrote what I thought would comfort him best—revealing my lack of faith while admitting I may have been wrong to doubt the existence of God, that he’d already changed me as a person, and telling him to remember that no matter what happens, he was innocent. I didn’t know if I believed in God or if he was innocent or whether I was truly changed or not. But my uncertainty seemed trifling compared to what this man had endured. If my words could help him, smoothing over my own confusion was worth it.