Saturday, September 17, 2011

Update on Troy Anthony Davis (part 3)

I've been writing about the Troy Davis case for more than three years now here at TPE (see here and here). After another execution date was set two weeks ago, the internets have blown up with interest in the case. Particularly noteworthy is the use of social and digital media to rally opponents of the execution.

As Troy Davis faces his fourth execution date, the effort to save him has come to rival the most celebrated death row campaigns in recent history.

On Monday, the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles will give Mr. Davis what is by all accounts his last chance to avoid death by lethal injection, scheduled for Wednesday.

Whether history will ultimately judge Mr. Davis guilty or innocent, cultural and legal observers will be left to examine why Mr. Davis, convicted of killing a Savannah police officer, Mark MacPhail, 22 years ago, has been catapulted to the forefront of the national conversation when most of the 3,251 other people on death row in the United States have not.

The answer, experts say, can be found in an amalgam of changing death penalty politics, concerns about cracks in the judicial system, the swift power of digital political organizing and, simply, a story with a strong narrative that caught the public’s attention.

From the start (22 years ago, well before the internets itself), this case has had problems. No physical evidence (no DNA, no fingerprints, no weapon, no blood) exists to establish Anthony's guilt. He was sent to death row strictly based on the eye-witness testimonies of nine defendants.

And seven of those nine have recanted their testimony over the years.

A parade of witnesses have recanted since the original trial, and new testimony suggests the prosecution’s main witness might be the killer.

There are racial undertones — Mr. Davis is black and the victim was white — and legal cliffhangers, including a stay in 2008 that came with less than 90 minutes to spare and a Hail Mary pass in 2009 that resulted in a rare Supreme Court decision.

But it's the cause celebre that Anthony has become that is really the product of the social media age. For instance, petitions gathering thousands of online signatures (633,000, according to the story) have been collected and delivered to the Ga. State Board of Pardons and Parole for consideration.

Propelled by a recent flood of digital media including Twitter traffic and online petition requests, the case has become fodder for discussion in fashionable Atlanta bistros, Harlem street corners and anywhere living room sleuths gather in their search for another Casey Anthony trial to dissect.

The list of people asking that the Georgia parole board offer clemency has grown from the predictable (Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Indigo Girls) to the surprising, including 51 members of Congress, entertainment heavyweights like Cee Lo Green and death penalty supporters including William S. Sessions, a former F.B.I. director, and Bob Barr, a former member of Congress, and some leaders in the Southern Baptist church. (Unlike some other states, in Georgia the governor cannot commute a death sentence; only the parole board can.)
Lucky for them, with the heat and glare of the world increasingly turning this way over the next three days.
Public pressure and intense media attention can cut both ways, said Stephen Bright, president of the Southern Center for Human Rights and a longtime capital defense lawyer.

“It certainly heightens the attention a case gets, but there also can be some defensiveness,” he said. “There has historically been that worry that people from out of state will come in and not understand what really happened.”

The difference, he said, is that in today’s information-rich age, people around the world actually do know most of the facts in the case.

“It tells the State of Georgia that the whole world is watching,” he said.

Of course, like Texas, Georgia could not care less that the whole world is watching. The two things you don't mess with down here are our guns and our executions. Don't need no outsiders comin' down hia and try'na run things.

It will be interesting to see how it plays out. As I wrote a few days ago, though executions happen more infrequently these days, the issue itself is still controversial. While a solid majority says it favors the death penalty (65%), that number drops below 50% if life without parole is offered as a viable option.

But what social media does is allow us to harden our positions for and against, making common ground virtually impossible to find. That's not a good thing for either side, ultimately, and it certainly isn't good news for Troy Davis.

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