Five days later, on Monday, September 29, 2008, my mother picked me up early from school and we drove down to Jackson. I was still unsure of why we were going. We never interacted with any of our neighbors, never went to any community events, and never participated in any kind of activism. Alpharetta was the perfect place for us: a safe, clean town where we could live our lives blissfully ignorant of what happened to the person next door. But Troy Davis read my letter and, through his older sister Martina Correia, invited me to death row on what might be his last day alive. I couldn’t refuse.
We met Martina in the prison parking lot. Her body, thin and frail, had been ravaged by cancer, her mind by the thought of her brother decaying in prison for a crime she was certain he didn’t commit. She was constantly in and out of the hospital and had gone through a divorce. She’d spent years traveling around the country and the world pleading her brother’s case to anyone who would listen. But she wasn’t sapped and cynical like I expected. Rather, she was upbeat, energetic, youthful—even beautiful.
She handed us two “Free Troy Davis” t-shirts. The front was a photo of teenage Troy clad in a cap and gown flashing a thumbs up. The back listed facts about his case. We followed her into the prison, where we passed our car keys and photo IDs to a woman through a small opening in a wall of reinforced glass. We walked through the sally gates and past the Hall of Motivational Posters.
“Right now it’s alright in here, but in the winter it gets really cold since they don’t heat this place up,” Martina said. “You can see mildew growing on the walls. It gets really, really hot in the summer, especially when everybody’s wearing those full jumpsuits.” As we entered the visitor’s lobby, she continued, “Troy put y’all on a list of his final visitors in case the Supreme Court decided they wouldn’t hear his case and he would be executed. That’s why today is a special visitation day, and the hours were extended until 9:00 PM, though they cut it back one hour after the Supreme Court announced they weren’t making a decision tonight.”
A dozen visitors were already there: Asians, whites, blacks, a writer, a professor, a filmmaker, a student, a former military member, a man from Washington, and a woman from Texas. They all hugged each other even though they’d never met.
Martina rattled on the door of the visitation cell. “Troy, Gautam and Kavita are here!” We would wait in the lobby, Martina explained, since only five visitors were allowed in the cell at a time. As I sat down, I heard an enthusiastic, high-pitched voice.
“Gautam! Gautam, is that you?”
I turned around to see a short boy, a little younger than me, with dreads past his shoulder.
“I’m Troy’s nephew. Martina’s son. My name is Antone, but I go by De’Jaun. Troy told me all about you.”
We talked as I nervously waited. De’Jaun was a year younger than me and had just started high school. He was interested in robotics and had joined his school’s robotics team. His project on the Troy Davis case won first place in the social science fair.
I’d just begun talking about my life on the competitive chess circuit when my mother tapped my shoulder. “We’re going in.”
De’Jaun slapped me on the back as I stood up.
I approached the cell. The door opened, and we walked in.
There he was, sitting on the left. Troy Anthony Davis. But he didn’t look much like the photo all over the internet—that undated photo, which ingrained itself in my mind as the Prison Photo, showed a man wearing large glasses and clad in a white jumpsuit against a concrete wall. The man looked straight into the camera, but his face was expressionless. I could see no anger in his eyes, nor sadness, just . . . disappointment. A deep, unshakable disappointment.
That wasn’t the man seated in front of me. There were no glasses, his mouth was drawn into an infectious grin, he smelled of clean linen, and his eyes weren’t sorrowful. They were glowing.
“Wow, he’s tall!” His voice was a deep, soothing bass inflected with a Savannah drawl. “Gautam, I saved you a seat.” There were five chairs arranged in a circle around him, and he indicated to the empty one closest to him. The other four were taken by my mother, Martina, and two others I didn’t recognize. Behind him, on a narrow ledge attached to the wall, were a bottle of Coke, a salad, and a hotdog brought by visitors because he had to forgo dinner for the visit.
He motioned for me to sit next to him.
“I read your letter, Gautam. I have it taped to the wall in my cell. I was very moved by what you wrote.”
I smiled but didn’t say anything. The others continued talking while I sat in silence and listened. I’d expected a somber meeting, but everyone, especially Troy, was smiling and laughing.
“Tell us what happened on September twenty-third, Troy.”
“Yeah Troy, what was it like?”
He leaned back against the wall. “That morning, they came into my cell and tried to take my razors away. I laughed and said, ‘What, you think I’m going to kill myself? I’ve had twenty years to do that. Let me shave in peace.’ I saw the gurney they were going to strap me to so they could execute me. But when I walked into the death chamber, I had this sudden vision of butterflies. I knew they were a symbol of freedom. The guards asked if I wanted a sedative. I told them I didn’t, because I wasn’t afraid and I wasn’t nervous. God had taken away all my burdens, and I knew he wouldn’t let me die. The nurse was surprised that, despite my history of high blood pressure, my vitals were perfectly normal. She asked how I could be so composed, and I pointed up and said, ‘Him.’ She asked again if I wanted to take a sedative. I told her I did not.”
“You don’t sound shaken up at all,” a woman said.
“It may seem strange that I can smile and laugh after being on death row for seventeen years. But my faith in God got me through these tough times. Every time I was afraid or had doubts, I prayed and trusted that God would see me through. I’ve passed two execution dates and came both times within twenty-four hours of death. And on both of those days, God made it clear my time had not come yet.”
“Amen, Troy,” another woman said. “Amen.”
“My sister and I are living examples of the miracles of God. Without God, I would’ve been scared and nervous. But God took away all my fear. My younger sister, Kim, was paralyzed when she was a kid. Specialists from all around the world said she would never walk again. One day I told her, ‘God has done His part. Now it’s time to do yours. I’m not letting you sit back in that wheelchair. Now walk!’ She took her first step, then another, then another, and she’s still walking today. Later on, she was injured several times, including once on the hip where the doctors said surgery was required immediately. She refused to get surgery and instead prayed to God. The injury miraculously disappeared.”
“Don’t you ever feel angry or frustrated for being on death row for something you didn’t do?”
“God hasn’t failed me. He just isn’t ready for me to come home yet.”
“Martina told me you spend a lot of time in your cell reading the Bible,” my mother said.
“I experimented with many religions, but it was Christianity that really stuck with me. I’m not perfect, but my faith in God has helped me tremendously. I have no hatred. I do not hate the MacPhail family. I do not hate the Georgia justice system. I pray for all of them.”
The others nodded in approval while Troy looked over at me. “You haven’t talked much, Gautam. I was a quiet kid like you, although I couldn’t write the way you can.” He chuckled. “I imagine we have quite different views on God.”
I finally found the nerve to speak. “If God exists, why is there so much evil in the world? The tsunami a few years ago killed hundreds of thousands of people. Why would any god allow that?”
“Ah, the Problem of Evil. Imagine that a child throws rocks at his neighbor’s windows and breaks them. If his parents pay to repair the window, what do you think will happen? The child will keep throwing rocks at the window and never learn his lesson. The parents would be better off not paying for the window and letting the child suffer the consequences for his actions. Not because they don’t love him, but because they want him to be a better person. God granted us free will, and many humans use that free will to sin. If God immediately fixed everything, we wouldn’t learn our lesson. So like the parents in that example, God is letting us live with the consequences of our actions. Not because He doesn’t love us, but because He wants us to be good from our own hearts.”
What an easy answer. Good things happened because of God’s grace, bad things because of us. What about the hundreds of thousands that died in the tsunami in Indonesia? Surely they didn’t all deserve to die. He was so sure. If he was innocent, why would God send him here? A god that let such evil happen or was powerless to stop it was unworthy of worship.
Then again, Troy shouldn’t have even been alive. He’d escaped execution twice. Who was I to say it wasn’t God’s will that saved him?
We rotated out after half an hour in the cell. After I walked out, a middle-aged woman approached me. “He really is something, isn’t he?” I nodded as she continued. “It’s kind of incredible how he’s managed to stay so positive after all these years. I’m a Unitarian minister, so I definitely have my disagreements with him about religion. But he is a living example of the power of faith.”
I looked through the bars at the end of the lobby to see other inmates lumbering about with buckets in their hands. I spent the remaining time talking to De’Jaun until Martina motioned for us to enter the cell once more. Troy was already talking to a few others when we walked in.
“…I’ve devoted my life in prison to helping others avoid making the same mistakes I did, especially in choosing friends. Over the years I’ve written a lot of letters to young people, giving them advice. Every single time my mother told me I was hanging out with the wrong people, she was right. That’s why, when I’m released, I’m going to help the next generation make the right decisions in life.”
A woman laughed. “Troy, when you’re released, I’ll take you fishing!”
Troy smiled and looked at me. “Have you ever been fishing before?”
“I’ve never been,” I said.
“Never? I’ll take you then when I get out.”
“I don’t fish because it seems cruel to the fish. I turned vegetarian when I was five because I didn’t like the idea of killing animals if I didn’t have to.”
“Alright, Gautam, how about we go fishing and you just sit in the boat and watch how it’s done?”
“I’m okay with that.”
“Then we have a deal. I’ll take you fishing once I get out.”
Time was up, and everyone shuffled near the cell to get a chance to say goodbye. When I finally got back into the cell, Troy stood up and, to my surprise, gave me a hug.
“It was nice meeting you, Gautam. I’ll see you again real soon.”