I was due to be executed in the same place Troy Davis was killed. I’ll keep fighting against the death penalty in his name
They try to keep the death cell at Georgia diagnostic and classification prison in Jackson clean; its smell is primarily one of antiseptic. But no matter how hard they try, the stench of death is impossible to get rid of. I know this because on 24 May 1984 I was due to be executed in the same place that Troy Davis was killed on Thursday. The electric chair was prepped and my head about to be shaved, but just hours before the execution time I received a reprieve. Troy was not so lucky.
The death watch cell itself is like most cells on death row: 8ft by 6ft; a stainless steel toilet and sink combination; a slab bed welded to the wall; an inch-thick mattress with blue and white stripes and an old olive-green army blanket. On the wall there’s a piece of metal that was once shined up to act as a mirror but is now scratched and marked by other inmates. You can’t see your reflection anymore.
When you’re there, two officers observe you at all times. One would write down my every movement, the other my every word, to report back to the warden before the time of death – to stop you from taking your own life before the state takes it from you. I could see, from where I sat, the room where the execution was to be controlled. In those days it was where the electric chair would have been turned on and now, I assume, it’s where the lethal cocktail of drugs is administered. The execution chamber itself is only 10ft away.
Although no single experience in this cell is the same as another, everyone who’s been there will have had to fight. Fight the depression that is constantly trying to descend upon you. Fight off the questions: can I keep going until the end? Is there a way to make peace with myself before it comes?
They give you the option of turning the TV on. I take comfort from the fact that Troy would have seen the vigils outside the prison, the protests around the world, and that he would have heard the cries of “I am Troy Davis”.
I never met Troy. And deliberately did not have an active role in the campaign to save his life. I did not want his case compared to mine. I pleaded guilty to murdering 77-year-old Fred Stapleton, whom I shot dead in an armed robbery on 4 April 1974. After my sentencing, I began writing to his family asking for forgiveness. They gave it to me and it was through their backing that my death sentence was eventually commuted to life, and I was released from jail in 1992. Troy always maintained his innocence.
I attended the vigil outside the state capitol in Atlanta. Along with the 500 others present I felt the joy when we heard his execution had been postponed by the supreme court. There was singing, there was chanting. I addressed the crowd and told them what Troy said himself, that his case is more than just about him. It’s about a justice system that the poor of Georgia, the African Americans of Georgia, no longer trust. A justice system that cannot accept when it is wrong, that will execute an innocent man rather than seek the truth. That won’t stop to reconsider, even when witnesses say they’ve been pressured and coerced.
When the decision to go ahead regardless was given, the mood outside the capitol changed from joy to shock and disbelief. Troy was psychologically tortured, given a false sense of hope. I can relate, on some level. When I was on death row and my first execution date came, I sat and waited in my cell for the guards to come and take me away. It was terrifying, not knowing when or if they’d come. They never did. The legal system, which entitles all first execution dates to an automatic appeal, had never been explained to me and I did not find out until the following week that I was not to die.
The last thing I told the crowd outside the capitol was that we have the power to bring about a moratorium on the death penalty by voting out those representatives and senators who are hellbent on its use; by enacting the old saying that government is of, by and for the people. My reprieve from the electric chair came just hours before my scheduled death. It took a phone call from Mother Teresa to the supreme court and pleas from the Stapleton family. Troy Davis received no such clemency, but his death must not be in vain.