On 21 September, I was among those individuals who held their breath watching the news, not daring to hope for a happy ending to Troy Davis story. In 1989, Davis was convicted for the murder of a police officer in Savannah, Georgia, based on the testimony of nine witnesses. In 1991 he was sentenced to death, although the murder weapon was never recovered. For 20 years Davis maintained his innocence and garnered support from the public, celebrities, human rights organisations and politicians.
Seven witnesses later recanted their testimonies. In 2010, there was an evidentiary hearing to determine whether evidence not obtained at the time of the trial would prove his innocence, but these witnesses were not called to provide testimony. After a last glimmer of hope when his execution was delayed for four hours by the US Supreme Court, Davis was executed on 21 September at 11:08 pm.
What hit me as I tried to understand the larger context of this event was that nearly every time such cases arise, they are mostly concerning African Americans. I hushed the paranoid, small voice in my head that was telling me that maybe I felt that way only because I, a black African, empathise more easily with other black people.
I decided to search for data that could logically explain the trend I saw. What I found was disconcerting.
A 2003 study by the University of Maryland concluded that prosecutors are more likely to seek a death sentence when the race of the victim is white and are less likely to do so when the victim is African American. Additionally, a 2007 study conducted by the Yale University School of Law on death sentence cases in Connecticut revealed that African American defendants received the death penalty three times more than white defendants in cases in which the victims were white.
According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2009, blacks comprised 39 per cent of the total male prison and jail population, while whites comprised 33 per cent and Hispanics 21 per cent. But at the point of arrest the numbers are quite different: the Federal Bureau of Investigation in its 2010 publication ‘Crime in the US’ reveals that in 2009, 69.1 per cent of all persons arrested were white, 28.3 per cent were black, and the remaining 2.6 per cent were other races. The little paranoid voice came back to me: these numbers, taken as a whole, imply that black people are more likely to go to jail after an arrest than white people, and that blacks tend to get heavier punishments in murder cases, including the death penalty, for similar crimes. An additional problem is that blacks overall are less able to afford high-quality legal services and have to rely on court-appointed lawyers who may overlook evidence because of their heavy case loads.
Looking at the numbers, however, we cannot exclude the possibility that some of them may be victims of discrimination, or that verdicts and sentences may be rendered unfairly. Of all the possible explanations, the latter is the most disturbing to me in a country that defines itself as being “the land of the free.”
It might be unrealistic to expect discrimination to be completely finished in America only six decades after federally mandated integration. But one must recognise that more efforts are needed to combat racial disparities and to ensure equal rights for every citizen at every phase of the criminal justice system. Ensuring diversity among court staff at all levels and within police departments should also be a priority, particularly in neighbourhoods with minority populations. Defendants should have the right to a new trial if their attorneys omit important evidence. The legal system could also prescribe penalties for lawyers if they have proven to be careless. And especially in cases where doubt can cost a life through the death penalty, evidence should be analysed more thoroughly.
As I switched off the news, I could not help but wonder: what if Troy Davis was innocent? And I wonder, with efforts such as these in place, if Americans can better protect their own rights, and those of the other ‘Troys’ out there, with liberty and justice for all.
Ariane Inkesha is a Communications Officer at the Institute of Research and Dialogue for Peace in Rwanda and a Fellow with the international non-profit organisation IREX in Washington, DC. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).