Ray Charles sings about Georgia being on his mind. But as Troy Davis was laid to rest Saturday, Georgia was also on the minds of distraught death penalty opponents who saw him executed on the basis of questionable evidence and despite an array of witnesses who had recanted their original testimony.

Georgia has been at the epicenter of the death penalty debate for almost four decades. It was a case from Georgia — Furman v. Georgia — that led the U.S. Supreme Court to rule in 1972 that the death penalty was unconstitutional because it was being administered in an arbitrary and capricious manner.

After declaring a moratorium on executions, many states rushed to overhaul their capital punishment statutes to comply with the new Supreme Court’s standard. In 1976 — Gregg v. Georgia — the court approved the modified death penalty statutes of Georgia, along with those of Florida and Texas, while rejecting the approach adopted by North Carolina and Louisiana that required all people convicted of murder to be executed.

But it was the case of Troy Anthony Davis, an African-American from Savannah, that became Exhibit A in the re-energized movement to permanently outlaw the death penalty. His plight drew international attention as well as support from such unlikely sources as former President Jimmy Carter, conservative former U.S. Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., and former FBI Director William Sessions.

Davis was convicted of murdering Mark MacPhail, an off-duty Savannah police officer moonlighting as a security guard. According to prosecutors, MacPhail rushed to the aid of a homeless man who was being pistol-whipped by Davis. No gun was ever found. There was no DNA test linking Davis to the crime and more than a half-dozen witnesses recanted or changed their original testimony.

One of the witnesses, Antoine Williams, signed an affidavit saying, “… After the officers talked to me, they gave me a statement to sign and told me to sign it. I signed it. I did not read it because I cannot read.”

When it comes to the death penalty, race matters. As of January, 3,251 persons were on death row. There were 103 in Georgia, including Troy Davis. Nationally, 42 percent of those on death row are Black, although African-Americans make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population. Latinos represent 12 percent of those awaiting execution.

The American Bar Association (ABA) called for a moratorium on all executions in 1997, a resolution that remains in effect. “Today, administration of the death penalty, far from being fair and consistent, is instead a haphazard maze of unfair practices with no internal consistency,” the resolution read.

Even Ray Charles can see that.

No peace, no peace I find
?Just this old sweet song,?
Keeps Georgia on my mind.


George E. Curry

NNPA Editor-in-Chief