Troy Davis & the power of forgiveness.

Via on Sep 22, 2011

Then Jesus said, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Luke 23:34

Troy Davis did not eat his last meal; he refused the Ativan commonly taken by inmates to calm nerves before an execution. Here was a man who went to his death fearlessly, with dignity, and with all of his faculties intact.

Upon being asked if he had any final words, Troy said yes.

He raised his head so he could look at Mark MacPhail Jr., who was an infant when his father was murdered, and William MacPhail, the victim’s brother.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Davis said to both of them, “The incident that night was not my fault, I did not have a gun…I did not personally kill your son, father, and brother. I am innocent.”

Davis then asked his family and supporters to look deeper into the case so they could find the truth.

And to the prison officials he said,

“For those about to take my life, may God have mercy on your souls. May God bless your souls.”

The lethal cocktail of drugs was then administered, and Troy Anthony Davis lost consciousness; he was dead within 14 minutes.

Troy Davis was not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and there was no physical evidence tying him to the shooting murder of Mark MacPhail (Thanks to an astute reader bringing the court documents to my attention, this claim has been nullified. There was indeed physical evidence in the case, the most compelling of which were identical bullet casings found at the two different shooting locations the evening of the crime.) Seven out of nine witnesses recanted their testimony (The judge did not find the so-called recantations valid and so, officially, there are no recantations as such.) Over a million people from around the world raised their voices and called for clemency, including former President Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Pope Benedict XVI. Troy’s execution was an utter failure and an indictment of the U.S. justice system, and one that his attorney referred to as a “legal lynching.”

But before the end of Troy’s life yesterday, he expressed nothing but dignity and forgiveness; he looked at the victim’s family in their eyes. He could have chosen not to say anything, not to look at them at all, but he didn’t. Regardless of his guilt or innocence, the fact that Troy acknowledged the MacPhail family so intimately and without anger was a powerful act, and one we should not forget so soon.

Contrariwise, in Texas yesterday, another state sanctioned murder took place, but in this case a perpetrator of a grisly crime, Lawrence Brewer, was guilty beyond a doubt. Thirteen years ago, Brewer was one of three white men convicted of chaining James Byrd, a 49-year-old black man, by the ankles to the back of a pick-up truck and dragging him along a bumpy asphalt road to his death. The victim’s blood was found on all three men’s shoes, and his body parts were strewn over three miles of the rural Texas road. In letters introduced as evidence in the case, Brewer bragged that the experience of killing Byrd “was a rush, and I’m still licking my lips for more.”

While in prison, he joined a white supremacist group. Since the murder, Brewer had remained unrepentant, claiming his innocence by saying he was simply along for a ride with friends.

Brewer’s last meal, which he ordered but did not eat, consisted of two chicken fried steaks smothered in gravy with sliced onions, a triple meat bacon cheeseburger with fixings on the side, a cheese omelet with ground beef, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers and jalapenos, a large bowl of fried okra with ketchup, one pound of barbecue with half a loaf of white bread, three fajitas with fixings, a meat lovers pizza, three root beers, one pint of Blue Bell vanilla ice cream, and a slab of peanut butter fudge with crushed peanuts.

At the time of his death, Lawrence Brewer had no final statement to make. He reportedly tearfully glanced at his parents and family, who were viewing the execution through a nearby window, took several deep breaths, and closed his eyes. I can only imagine his parents’ pain.

And at the vigil yesterday held by Byrd’s family members, his eldest daughter, Renee Mullins, had this to say, “The execution doesn’t mean that much to me because it doesn’t bring my father back. I want the world to know that I have forgiven him (Brewer) and I don’t hate him.”

The victim’s son, Ross Byrd, further stated,

“You can’t fight murder with murder. Life in prison would have been fine. I know he can’t hurt my daddy anymore. I wish the state would take in mind that this isn’t what we want.”

The type of forgiveness exhibited by James Byrd’s children reminds me of a remarkable woman in Rwanda by the name of Iphigenia Mukantabana, who was able to forgive a former member of the Hutu militia that hacked and clubbed her husband and five children to death during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. Not only did she come to forgive him, she weaves baskets with his wife and calls her a friend; she shares meals with the two of them. Iphigenia’s capacity to forgive is staggering, and it is a shining example of what it is to call oneself a Christian.

Recall in 2007, the Amish school shooting in Pennsylvania. A gunman burst into a one-room schoolhouse and shot ten young girls, five of whom died from their wounds. He shot himself shortly afterwards. Amazingly, the gestures of forgiveness from the Amish community began almost immediately after the shooting. Nothing could have been more Christ-like. Several members of the community, some of whom had only buried their daughters the day before, went to the killer’s burial service and hugged his widow and other members of his family.

I’m not sure if I would be capable of such magnanimity towards someone who murdered my loved ones. All I know is that these people are just ordinary people who exhibited extraordinary forgiveness—forgiveness in the truest Christian sense. Forgiveness that is severely lacking in our country right now. I recalled these acts of forgiveness because of Troy Davis’s execution last night, which touched my heart and continues to bring tears to my eyes as I type these words. And yet I hear American politicians proudly calling themselves Christians while simultaneously supporting a policy that goes against the teachings of Jesus Christ.

America cannot call itself a Christian nation if it embraces capital punishment. Rick Perry, the death penalty zealot who never loses sleep over any execution that happens in Texas, certainly is no Christian. And neither is Barack Obama, even if his stance isn’t nearly as extreme.

The death penalty is a broken and racist system that needs to be abandoned permanently. The execution of Troy Davis was a travesty of justice, and just one example in a long line of injustices incurred by this nation since its inception.

If the Troy Davis’s of our country can die based on zero physical evidence, then American justice is no better than the Taliban’s.

Jesus, the ultimate man of peace, love, and revolution, as we know him through the gospels, forgave his crucifiers. Likewise, I imagine he would have been appalled by the execution of Troy Davis.

I urge all Americans to start a dialogue about the death penalty starting with this question:

How do pro-death penalty Christians handle the disparity between the teachings of Jesus Christ and their belief that capital punishment is a morally sound practice?

Please ask your pro-death penalty friends and family members how they reconcile these two beliefs. Ask them earnestly; ask them now.

And then keep the dialogue going.

About S.V. Pillay

S.V. Pillay is a former high school English teacher and current freelance writer in the great city of Chicago. She enjoys writing about religion, spirituality, art, endangered species, the environment, and social justice. She is American by birth (want to see her birth certificate?), South Indian by DNA, a student of yoga, and a proud Generation X’er. She prefers interactions with real human beings as opposed to social networking. And although she owns her share of MP3s, she still listens to records, tapes, and Cds. S.V. Pillay is currently working on her debut novel, a book of poetry, and a bunch of short stories. Click here to follow her on Twitter. Click here to read more stuff.

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33 Responses to “Troy Davis & the power of forgiveness.”

  1. Tom Grasso tomgrasso says:

    Awesome. Thank you, the account of Troy's last moments of life will haunt me because nothing will be done outside of our emotions. Perhaps it is time we act…

    • Sunita Pillay says:

      Thank you, my brother! I was inspired reading your piece last night, and was working on this into the wee hours this morning.

  2. swati says:

    beautiful. thank you.

  3. Ashok says:

    This is one of the most poignant and touching commentaries I have read. As human beings, we seem to be wanting to think we are wired for revenge. Capital punishment is a barbaric relic from our less civilized past, yet we continue to crticize "backward" cultures for other equally disgusting practices. This piece draws a very interesting parallel of 3 different examples of forgiveness and true Christian values. It is so hard to reconcile one horror with another…..just like a drug, the temporary relief of revenge wears off and leaves an even greater scar. Thank you for showing the broken model of our justice system in such a way that is not preaching and simply asks the most pressing questions. Can we as humans evolve into our most enlightened selves? Excellent writing from a very compassionate point of view.

    • Sunita Pillay says:

      Wow. Thank you, Ashok, for the kind and thoughtful words! And yes, your question is right on. I too wonder if we as humans can evolve beyond this barbarism.

  4. michael feyisayo says:

    The evil men perpetuate is mind boggling. Our creator most be sad in one way or the other, hate is powerful, its so powerful if not handled properly it would consume the very individual. I pray for all their souls.

  5. Azevedo Alves says:

    In most of christianity of today mixed with political intentions, there is satanism

  6. Rahul (Pat) says:

    One the one hand I wholly agree with your views on the Troy Davis execution, but on the other I don’t believe that that capital punishment is entirely a barbaric relief for us humans. To a certain extent yes, but not entirely. Some people I guess, are beyond forgiveness. They have no remorse. Forgiveness from the families of their victims do not mean anything to them. I believe for these people, capital punishment can be justified, as they are guilty of the crime, not guilty of their actions & are kept alive at the expense of the tax-paying citizens.

    And according to my personal belief: some people (very few) do deserve to die.

    Lastly: Great piece Soops…Didn’t know about the case before your fb updates. Did some reading up & then to read this article was wonderful.

    • Tom Grasso tomgrasso says:

      Rahul, how does a society find justice in doing to the condemned what the condemned are accused of doing?

    • Sunita Pillay says:

      I'll have to agree with Tom on this one. For the state to sink as low as the murderer by killing him (or her) puts them both on equal ground, that is, they are both murderers. The state must take the moral high ground here, I believe. Thanks for reading, cuz! :)

  7. pi069 says:

    Powerful words – forgiveness is a blessing that is so difficult to offer – to others and to ones self. From Mothers of Peace "The flower that began to grow from the tragedy at Beslan was a Russian Orthodox priest calling for
    forgiveness for the souls of the terrorists who died in this senseless massacre. It is only when we
    forgive, without concern to who erred first, that we will begin to make progress to peace.

  8. nimitta says:

    Thank you for your impassioned cry against the death penalty, Sunita. You’re absolutely right – it’s cruel, barbaric, impossible to apply equitably, and can’t be reversed in the event of a mistaken conviction. Troy Davis should never have been murdered by the state, and we must all work to abolish capital punishment.

    Having said this, I must add that it is clear you and other readers and writers on this subject at Elephant haven’t explored any of the primary sources of information about the case, and are just relying on news accounts that have largely echoed the biased claims of Davis’ defense team and supporters including Amnesty International (whom I have always supported).

    Sadly, there was never any doubt Troy Davis was guilty of shooting Michael Cooper, pistol-whipping Larry Young, and executing Officer Mark MacPhail on August 19, 1989. Davis received an eminently fair trial at which he was ably and aggressively represented by counsel, was quickly convicted (less than two hours) by a majority black jury, and the findings have been re-examined by over 20 judges over the course of several carefully scrutinized appeals. His conviction was not an injustice, nor was it achieved through police coercion, nor because he was poor, nor because he was black. There was indeed physical evidence, there were no recantations, and there was no other trigger man. Davis was guilty.

    If you’re still reading, the reason he was convicted so handily was because in addition to compelling physical evidence, there was a tight circumstantial web supported by 34 witnesses, mostly black, and many of whom knew him as a friend or acquaintance. This wasn’t some case of mistaken identification by eyewitnesses who were strangers, which is more common than most would think. Furthermore, there was no doubt whatsoever that Davis was the man with the .38 revolver – even though he denied in his inspiring final statement, “I did not have a gun…” – because he brandished it at the pool party and elsewhere in front of several friends.

    As for the physical evidence, there were four damning types. First, the shell casings at both shooting scenes were matched incontrovertibly by their distinctive hammer markings (nearly as unique as fingerprints), proving beyond doubt that the same gun was used in both shootings, the first of which was impossible for Davis to deny effectively and for which he was convicted. Second, the bullets themselves were matched to a fairly high degree, although less conclusively owing to deformation. Third, police found Davis’ bloody shorts, with impact spatter from the MacPhail shooting, in his mother’s dryer after he had tried to wash the stains away. These were not admissible for procedural reasons, but Davis could have waived that so that DNA tests could exonerate him. He didn’t, however, because the findings would have implicated him. After all, they contained MacPhail’s blood, and Davis’ story was that he ran away before shots were fired, in which case there couldn’t have been impact splatter on his clothing. Fourth, although he went out looking for trouble that day, Davis hadn’t planned on committing these particular crimes and wore a memorable shirt easily recalled by dozens of witnesses. After the shooting, he induced a so-called friend to switch shirts with him. In other words, on that one day Troy Davis’ behavior was an abomination, Sunita. Several witnesses in the Burger King parking lot said he smirked as he stood over Officer MacPhail and fired one last shot – the coup de grace – into MacPhail’s face.

    This was especially tragic because Troy had always been a ‘good kid’, taking care of his younger siblings and especially his disabled sister Kim. Those of you who are parents know that even the best of kids can get into serious trouble, especially when they start running with a ‘bad crowd’. Don’t believe for a second, though, that it was one of them, for example, Sylvester ‘Redd’ Coles, who pulled the trigger. Contrary to defense team spin, there is no credible evidence at all that Coles was involved, and a shameful injustice to suggest that he was.

    If this doesn’t sound like what you’ve read in the media, it’s because an illusory appearance of doubt was contrived by unscrupulous defense attorneys desperate to avert Davis’ execution in 2008 by planting a false narrative in our minds to sway public opinion. It is shocking that the media, including CNN and the Big Four networks, have been conned to this extent. In the trial, though, the jury heard the actual testimony, saw the evidence, and had no doubt at all. (Some jurors are said to now doubt their decision, but this is because they’ve been told – falsely – that some of the prosecution witnesses have recanted – see below).

    • Sunita Pillay says:

      Nimmita, I've replied in more detail below; however, I did not find any reference to bloody shorts. Can you provide a source for this information? Thanks.

  9. Tina Fossella, MFT Tina says:

    Thank you for writing this very important article.

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  11. For me, it is not a question of was Troy Davis innocent or guilty, but of the death penalty being morally unsound. How can we as a society continue to make this choice? And even more baffling for me than the disparity between people following the teachings of Jesus/the Bible and being pro-death penalty, is the disparity between those who are actively anti-abortion and pro-death penalty. Who decides which lives are sacred?

  12. metalyoga says:

    What the people want and how our government operates are becoming increasingly out of sync. Articles like this help make it clear in readers' minds how to decide their stance on issues like this. Eventually what will change this will be a mass outcry that cannot be refused. If we start counting at Troy Davis, how many killings will it take before anything changes?

  13. [...] it’s coming from slightly outside the Judeo-Christian frame of so many of our readings: Troy Davis and the Power of Forgiveness. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. [...]

  14. Lesley says:

    I appreciate the links to the case-specific facts (and look forward to reviewing them personally). But I would like to reiterate what you said, Sunita, that no one here was pushing that TD was decisively innocent….referring back to my previous comment about the fallible system of capital punishment – the problem for me is that the system cannot guarantee 100% that it will never execute an innocent person. I'm sure there are better "representatives" for such a movement, and I will be the first to admit my ignorance and superflous tendancies of being influenced by media & trusting in their reporting……but for me, the issue remains the same…perhaps a different poster child would have been more appropriate.

    But again, I am grateful that Nimmita took the time to find the links to actual information in the case.

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  16. [...] Forgive yourself. If we can’t do this or show ourselves kindness, then how can we do it towards others? [...]

  17. Sunita Pillay says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with you, Lesley. Thank you for reading and responding so thoughtfully. -Sunita

  18. Sunita Pillay says:

    Dear Nimmita,

    Thank you so much for directing me to the primary sources of this case. I do appreciate primary sources. (Although all three links were faulty; I had to correct the web addresses myself — just in case others are interested in looking into the documents and video for themselves.) And thanks also for your most eloquent and sharp reply to my piece. After having watched the Lawton video and reading just about every page of the court documents (phew), drawing diagrams, taking notes, etc., I can confidently say that I do have a much better understanding of what might have transpired during the wee hours of August 19, 1989.

  19. Sunita Pillay says:

    Yet, after ingesting all of it, I still say "might". Even the initial testimony of the witnesses at trial seemed dubious to me, as far as who may have been sober or not, who had tinted windows, who saw what out of a van, who was near-sighted, who changed their stories the second time around, who was coerced, (yes, coerced)… The issue of police coercion or misconduct, regardless of what the judge says, is still paramount in my mind and I'm sure in the minds of many others, especially as it relates to the two 16 years olds who were interrogated without their parents or attorney present. Excuse me for not having implicit faith in Georgia law enforcement!

  20. Sunita Pillay says:

    Right, Starre. Captial punishment makes no sense for atheists either. Not a Christian issue, per se, but ironoc how most of the proponents happen to be Christian. Thanks for putting in your two cents. -Sunita

  21. Sunita Pillay says:

    Thank you, Sesh! True, there are many complexities to consider such as prison reform in general. Lots to think about here…

  22. Sunita Pillay says:

    Thanks for your two cents, Kala. It is complicated, but every bit adds to the dialogue! -Sunita

  23. Sunita Pillay says:

    Thanks for reading, by the way! -Sunita

  24. Ashli says:

    I'm not sure if you were implying this or not, but Jeffrey Dahmer did not get sentenced to death. He got 15 consecutive life sentences. He ended up dying in prison, having been beaten to death by another inmate.

  25. Not really…I know Dahmer was killed in prison. Just implying that "deserve" is a dangerous word…

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