ATLANTA — Minutes before he was put to death, Troy Davis asked his supporters to “continue to fight this fight” – but will they, and how?
The Georgia inmate’s case outraged hundreds of thousands of people around the world who found the evidence against him weak, and opponents of the death penalty hope their anger provokes a backlash against capital punishment. Some activists say a fitting legacy of the case would be laws that bar death sentences for those, like Davis, whose convictions are based on eyewitness testimony.
With Davis gone, however, the loose coalition of groups who pushed for his freedom may simply crumble. Much may depend not on the death penalty’s most strident opponents, but on less politically active people who were drawn into the debate by Davis’ two-decade struggle.
That includes Melvin Middleton, who believes capital punishment can be appropriate. After learning more details about Davis’ case, he decided to show up at a downtown Atlanta rally opposing the execution.
“If you’re going to take someone’s life, you better be damn sure you are making the right decision,” he said. “I don’t know if he’s guilty or not, but he’s not proven guilty.”
Davis was executed late Wednesday for the 1989 murder of off-duty Savannah police officer Mark MacPhail. Defense attorneys said several key witnesses disputed their testimony and other people claimed that another man confessed to the crime, but state and federal courts repeatedly upheld the conviction.
Davis maintained his innocence even as he was strapped to a gurney in the death chamber, where he told the MacPhail family to “look deeper into this case so that you really can finally see the truth.”
Prosecutors and MacPhail’s relatives say they have no doubt that justice was done, but among Davis’ supporters, frustration runs deep.
“We did not want to lose Troy Davis as a casualty of this war, but I do think that his execution in a real sense will only add momentum to the movement of those of us who understand that the state really cannot be trusted with the ultimate punishment,” said the Rev. Raphael Warnock, who spoke on Davis’ behalf at a pardons board hearing this week.
Already, there are calls for lasting changes to the capital punishment system from Davis’ advocates. Former President Jimmy Carter said he hopes “this tragedy will spur us as a nation toward the total rejection of capital punishment.” Filmmaker Michael Moore posted a statement on his website calling for a boycott of Georgia.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, who visited Davis on death row, said he will push for a national ban on capital punishment in cases that rely on eyewitness testimony. Maryland passed such a law in 2009.
“We must not only mourn what happened to Troy Davis but take strong measures so that it does not happen again,” Sharpton said.
The Davis execution comes at a time when death penalty decisions are under increased scrutiny. The number of executions has dropped by half over the last decade, from 98 in 1999 to 46 in 2010. Illinois abolished capital punishment in March and several other states, including California and Connecticut, are expected to consider similar proposals next year.
More than 3,200 U.S. inmates were on death row at the beginning of 2011, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Public support for capital punishment remains strong, according to several polls. This month, a CBS/NY Times poll found that 60 percent of those surveyed supported the death penalty for people convicted of murder, with 27 percent opposed and 13 percent unsure. Gallup polls over the past two decades have shown slightly higher support, though Gallup found Americans to be closely divided when asked to choose between the death penalty and life imprisonment with no chance of parole.
Laura Moye of Amnesty International said she expects the Davis execution to be used to rally repeal movements across the country. She plans to meet with activists in Georgia over the next few days to plot out an attempt to banish capital punishment there.
“I’m meeting people who didn’t really ever speak about the death penalty and now they are. They’re hungry about the information and now they know,” she said.
A group of roughly two dozen death penalty opponents met Thursday night in Atlanta to discuss how they could abolish capital punishment in Georgia. Among their goals was getting new Davis supporters registered to vote.
“Tell them to get engaged in the political process because that’s where change is going to come,” said Helen Butler, executive director of the Atlanta-based Coalition For The Peoples’ Agenda.
It’s far from clear, however, whether the thousands who rallied and the hundreds of thousands who signed petitions on Davis’ behalf will become any kind of political force. Organizers have announced few concrete steps, and legislative proposals have yet to take shape.
“The emotion of the moment passes and unfortunately so does the urgency to address these issues,” said Bruce Barket, a New York criminal defense attorney who specializes in investigating wrongful convictions.
Spencer Lawton, the Savannah prosecutor who helped convict Davis, said the case shouldn’t morph into a broader debate about capital punishment.
“Whether you are for or against the death penalty case is irrelevant in this case,” he said. “You shouldn’t be making Troy Davis into a vehicle for you to distort the truth, and that’s what I think is going to happen. Whether you are for or against the death penalty, this has been a clear and fair and honest proceeding throughout. If you don’t like the result, don’t attack the proceeding falsely.”