Students rally in Amherst to protest Troy Davis execution

By Lindsey Davis

From wire and staff reports

One of the most controversial death penalty cases in Georgia’s history ended last night as the state executed Troy Anthony Davis, a convicted cop killer who adamantly maintained his innocence.

The case, which grabbed national attention over the past week, galvanized those across the country who questioned the evidence surrounding Davis’ conviction and the application of capital punishment. In Amherst, a group of Five College area students and community members gathered on the Amherst Town Commons last night to rally against the impending execution.

Davis, found guilty of murder in the 1989 shooting of Columbus High graduate Mark A. MacPhail, was pronounced dead at 11:08 p.m.

The waiting game played out throughout the day from Columbus, Ga. to the state prison in Jackson, Ga., where police in riot gear stood guard as Davis supporters gathered. People gathering around the country also waited for news throughout the day and evening.

As Davis’ scheduled execution time approached, Amherst protesters called for a moment of silence. About 30 individuals made their way, arm in arm, onto North Pleasant Street, blocking traffic on either side.

“It was so inspirational to see 30 people stopping traffic … it was such a symbolic gesture,” said Ben Taylor, a member of the University of Massachusetts International Socialist Organization branch and an undergraduate student studying political science, in a phone interview late last night after news of the execution had been disseminated.

Amherst police quickly arrived on the scene to clear the road. Shortly after, word broke among the protestors that Davis’ execution was delayed. The U.S. Supreme Court had agreed to review the case, delaying the execution that had been set for 7 p.m. last night. Thunderous cheers erupted from the group in Amherst as many hugged and cried out of hope for Davis’ future. They celebrated his supposed victory while chanting “We are Troy Davis.”

“The second you lose hope, this is what happens,” said UMass Environmental Conservation graduate student and International Socialist Organization member Kate Losey after hearing the news of the delay.

Around 8:15 p.m., protesters began to disperse from the commons, according to Losey.

But at 10:04 p.m., MacPhail’s mother, Anneliese MacPhail, got a call from the Georgia attorney general’s office saying the stay was denied, paving the way for the execution.

Twice during the delay, MacPhail was interviewed live by CNN’s Anderson Cooper.

“I would like to close this book,” she told Cooper. She said the ordeal has been “hell.”

In Jackson, outside Georgia’s death-row prison, crowds protesting Davis’ execution cheered upon hearing the high court had agreed to review the case. But the upswell in enthusiasm followed tense moments during which at least three protesters across the street from the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison got arrested as the crowd there grew unruly.

After that, an army of corrections officers in riot gear deployed in front of the prison gate. The law enforcement presence later swelled as two convoys of Georgia state patrol cruisers, lights flashing and sirens blaring, pulled up on the north side of Georgia Highway 36 to seal off access to the prison. In the media area separated from the road by a fence, a prison representative told reporters they had five minutes to decide whether to stay in the secured area or leave. If they left, they would not be allowed back in.

Hundreds of protesters massed in a restricted area on the south side of the highway as black-clad officers in helmets and body armor, armed with batons and other riot gear, were arrayed across the prison entrance, as if expecting a charge. More stood with plastic wrist restraints, prepared to make arrests.

The atmosphere grew increasingly tense as Davis’ final appeals appeared to be running out.

The quiet inside the Death House as Davis breathed his last was in stark contrast to a day of protests by Davis supporters around the world who feared the state had sanctioned the killing of an innocent man. Scores of people crowded a field near the prison in the hours leading up to the execution, singing and praying that Davis be spared the lethal injection.

“There are so many Troy Davises out there,” said Ellen Kubica, 28, who came all the way from Germany to protest Davis’ execution. “This case has shed a light on all the injustices of the death penalty: its racism, its classism, its bias and everything.”

Davis always denied firing the shots that killed MacPhail. He said yesterday he was willing to take a polygraph test — sacrificing precious time with family — in a last-ditch effort to persuade the state Board of Pardons and Paroles to spare his life. The Georgia Department of Corrections denied that request yesterday morning, without explanation. “We’re very disappointed that under the circumstances they wouldn’t make that happen,” said Stephen Marsh, one of Davis’ attorneys.

The execution came just two days after the pardons board denied Davis clemency after a day of testimony in a closed-hearing in Atlanta. Defense attorneys sought to convince the five-member board that Davis’ guilt was too much in doubt to proceed with the execution. They pointed to several recent witness recantations, alleged police misconduct during the investigation and new testimony from a man who claimed he saw another man kill MacPhail.

The pardons board declined a request yesterday to reconsider its decision. Davis’ final appeals also were rebuffed. Davis’ case was remarkable even in Georgia, a state with a storied death penalty history that has affected capital punishment across the country. It stood out not just for the worldwide attention it generated, but its unusual procedural history, which included three previous stays of execution and a rare intervention in 2009 by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Yet at every turn, Davis ultimately failed to convince the courts. A federal judge last year dismissed Davis’ claims as amounting to little more than “smoke and mirrors,” dealing a fatal blow to the defense.

Davis’ case also stirred the worldwide protests, rekindling the debate over the death penalty. The case shocked not only opponents of capital punishment but also some supporters. William S. Sessions, the former FBI director, argued the case had too many unresolved issues. Former President Jimmy Carter and Pope Benedict XVI also weighed in.

Amnesty International expressed outrage at the pardons board’s refusal to spare Davis, saying the case underscored the fallibility of the courts and fundamental problems with the death penalty.

“We like science to resolve things. This is always going to be gray, and therefore it pushes the death penalty question: Is the death penalty so worthwhile that it’s occasionally risking a gray case to forward to execution?” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment. “Everybody’s got to admit there’s a 1 percent chance he might be innocent if not more, and that’s the disturbing thing about the death penalty. It’s never going to be 100 percent sure.”

The rally that took place in Amherst, which first started at the UMass Student Union and made its way to Amherst Commons, was organized by the UMass branch of the International Socialist Organization, the W. E. B. Du Bois Afro-American Department at UMass and Trigger Radio Collective, according to a press release issued yesterday. Members of the other Five College community also participated in that gathering.

Jim Mustian and Tim Chitwood from the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer and McClatchy Newspapers contributed reporting from Georgia.

Collegian staff writer Lindsey Davis contributed reporting from Amherst.