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On The Mercy Seat: Troy Anthony Davis and American Capital Punishment

And the mercy seat is waiting

And I think my head is burning

And in a way I’m yearning

To be done with all this weighing of the truth.

And eye for an eye

And a tooth for a tooth

And anyway I told the truth

And I’m not afraid to die.

~”The Mercy Seat”

Johnny Cash’s classic rendition of the death row anthem, “The Mercy Seat,” at one point, filled the airwaves, thanks to what some have called the award-winning coverage of Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now!  Their video stream was one of few, if not the only nonstop, live broadcast outside the Georgia Diagnostic Prison, where 42 year-old Troy Anthony Davis, on death row for two decades, was scheduled for his turn on the “mercy seat.”

But there was no mercy to be had.  In the end, Davis was pronounced dead at 11:08, 21 Sept. 2011.

I learned of Troy Davis’ fate as I lay in the still of my darkened bedroom, unable to move, other than to read and write running Facebook status updates.  As I soaked up the historic, tragic moment, I could not help but be struck by the liturgical nature of it all, this uniquely American spectacle called capital punishment.  Indeed, the stunningly ritualistic, religious aspects of American executions are numerous.

First, there was Amy Goodman’s evocative musical choice, “The Mercy Seat,” not accidental, to be sure.  The “mercy seat” is, according to the Old Testament, the throne of God.    According to Christian teachings, it is the place where God issues commandments … and where sacrifices are made.   It is said to be the golden covering of the Ark of the Covenant, or in the case of modern executions, a gurney.  And capital punishment, it seems, has come to be the highest form of this most divine of offerings:  human sacrifice.

But the obscene liturgy did not end there.  There were also the last supper … and the last rites afforded the prisoner, both of which Troy Davis reportedly refused.  Of course, the human sacrifice was not optional.  To the contrary, the prisoner is strapped down on the gurney and administered a lethal injection.

It is all so final … and, as Davis attorney Thomas Ruffin, Jr. described it, “macabre.”  Ruffin was one of several witnesses to what he, and many others, have characterized as the “legalized lynching” of an innocent man.

And speaking of witnesses and macabre, am I the only one troubled by the reports of the some of the journalists who were allowed to watch the killing.  I know they were only doing their jobs, but the cold, efficient recitation of what they observed seemed, to me, grotesque.  It just seems that some of them might have been a bit more, I don’t know … shaken.

Jon Lewis, of WSB Radio, subjectively described Davis’ declaration of innocence to the family of slain off-duty Savannah police officer Mark MacPhail as “defiant.”  So “defiant” that he asked for God’s mercy on the “souls” his executioners.

On the other hand, Ruffin’s grim account was chilling, and more humane.  “I saw the tube inserted into his arm, and then fluid, then jerking. It’s sickening. It’s worse than … anything on film and television.”

This in spite of the fact that there was no physical evidence against Troy Davis.  Plus, no murder weapon was ever found.  What’s more, seven of nine eye witnesses recanted their testimony, some saying they were initially pressured by the police to lie.  And, during a drunken rant, one of the two remaining witnesses reportedly confessed to being the trigger man.

Throw in the fact that Troy Davis was Black and the slain police officer was White — in Georgia — and it soon becomes clear that America, even in the age of Obama, is anything but post-racial or post-Black.

Attorney Ruffin was quick to point out that Black men account for 48.4 of Georgia’s death row population (almost half), while they make up only 15 percent of the state’s population.  And Professor Michelle Alexander’s landmark publication, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, makes the case that there are more Black men in prison in 2011 than were enslaved in 1850.

Perhaps that is why the killing of Troy Davis is increasingly being viewed as more lynching than execution, and why Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” (the strains of which could also be heard outside that Georgia prison and all over the blogosphere) is inspiring a new generation of  freedom fighters.  And why it seems, to people around the world, more like Jim Crow than the 21st century.  Indeed, all that’s missing in this story is the Ku Klux Klan and Lester Maddox (Georgia’s Bull Connor).

Which, ironically, brings us back to the liturgy of capital punishment, the theological trappings of which expose what might be called America’s racial underbelly. This is exactly the case made in the article, “The Religious Roots of Southern Punitiveness.”

“During the Jim Crow period, lynching was used to enforce white supremacy. This constant brutality left its mark on the brand of southern evangelical religion that provided a theological justification, and later a twisted spiritual celebration, of slavery. The result, a perverse alchemy of Christ and Anti-Christ.”

And the killing of Troy Davis is an extension of this shameful legacy. Said Ruffin, “As long as the death penalty is applied in a racially bigoted fashion and a class bigoted fashion, this sort of cheating, this sort of legalized lynching this sort of heartless application of punishment will continue. It has to come to an end.”

In short, we cannot continue to delude ourselves into thinking that, because there is a Black man in the White House, the American playing field is level, or that there is true equal justice under the law.  Speaking of whom, President Barack Obama was totally mute on the matter, until just moments before Troy Davis was killed–and coincidentally or otherwise — shortly after Howard University students were handcuffed and arrested outside the White House, protesting the pending execution.

And the Justice Department, also headed by a Black man, Attorney General Eric Holder, was equally silent.

Now, I know that some will be quick to point out that this was a state’s rights issue and, thus, out of the jurisdiction of the federal government.  But the Obama administration could have still tried to intervene, had they the will … or the courage, as they did just two months ago.  At the time, The Guardian (July 2011) ran this headline:  “Obama tries to stop execution in Texas of Mexican killer.”

But it was to be in the case of this man, Troy Anthony Davis, who had luminaries from around the world calling for a stay of execution, from the Pope and Bishop Desmond Tutu, to Judge William Sessions, former head of the FBI under President Ronald Reagan.

Instead the Obama White House issued a milquetoast statement just before Davis was lynched, I mean executed.

According to the Associated Press, “Less than half-hour before Davis’ scheduled execution Wednesday, White House press secretary Jay Carney issued a statement saying that Obama has long worked to ensure accuracy and fairness in the criminal justice system especially in capital cases. But Carney said it would not be appropriate for the president of the United States to weigh in on specific cases like this one, which is a state prosecution.”

Soon thereafter, the Supreme Court voted unanimously to reject the last minute appeal for a stay of execution, ending a rare four-hour delay, supposedly to review the case.  Although some believe that temporary reprieve was more about bringing in more police — in full riot gear — just in case … what?

Still, Jason Ewart, another of Davis’ attorneys, tried to see the upside of this gross miscarriage of justice, noting that “this case struck a chord in the world, and as a result the legacy of Troy Davis doesn’t die tonight.”

He remarked further, “our sadness, the sadness of his friends and his family, is tempered by the hope that Troy’s death will lead to fundamental legal reforms so we will never again witness, with inevitable regret, the execution of an innocent man as we did here tonight.”

I can’t think of any stronger argument for the abolition of the death penalty.  Can you?  It is time for this nation, supposedly built on Christian values, to live up to its lofty ideals.

Dr. Pamela D. Reed is a cultural critic, public speaker and associate professor of Africana literature at Virginia State University. Her book, “Black POTUS: From The Ideal To The Real: Collected Essays On Barack Obama, Race And American Culture,” is forthcoming this fall.

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