The death of Troy Davis, through the eyes of a reporter

jmustian@ledger-enquirer.comSeptember 22, 2011 

— The call to my cell phone from the Georgia Department of Corrections came at 5:37 p.m. The state Supreme Court had turned down a request for a stay of execution by condemned prisoner Troy Anthony Davis, which for me meant it was time to start shedding my devices.

Voice recorder, iPhone, pen, note pad, phone, wallet, keys, press credentials – all of these items would not be at my disposal as I watched Davis die.

Even for a newspaperman, death is often distant. You don’t always see the triple homicide as it happens, or feel the flames of the fatal fire. Even in covering capital cases, the penalty remains abstract – a sentence in court documents.

Not tonight.

My journey began near the front of Georgia’s death row prison here. Three other journalists and I climbed into a large white van with nothing but our driver’s licenses. Pencils and legal pads would be provided.

The drive to the prison went smoothly. We escaped the chaos of the media staging area and protesters, and drove past frowning guards and a beautiful lake. The landscape of the campus was pretty and may have passed for a country club or a freshly manicured subdivision under different circumstances.

After passing through a metal detector and walking down a long hall reminiscent of an airport, we stopped in a break room where prison officials unwind and buy snacks. For the next four hours, we, the media witnesses, bided our time talking sports and news. Speculation about Davis' fate was inevitable.

At 7:20 p.m., we heard a primal shouting, presumably from nearby prisoners. Could it be related to the case? “Nah, Dan Uggla may have just hit a three-run homer,” quipped one reporter, referring to the Atlanta Braves second baseman.

A long evening turned into a long night, one replete with uncertainty and illegible thoughts. Lays potato chips and sandwiches assuaged our hunger, but not my curiosity about what was causing the delay: Would we wait until 2 or 3 a.m.? Did my editors know something I didn’t? What about deadline?

Unlike me, all three of my media colleagues had witnessed multiple executions – one writer had seen about a dozen – and they cautioned against reading too much into the delay. After years of appeals, Davis’ fate rested in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court.

At 10:37 p.m., a guard in a light blue shirt walked into the room and told us to get up and stand in line in a particular order. I was third.

Back down the long airport-like hallway and back into that white van. This time, the ride is devoid of chatter. Any attempt at communication was self-restricted to a whisper. Guards stood everywhere, watching us skeptically, their firearms handy.

After clearing a checkpoint or two, we pulled into a field with a basketball court within view of the Death House. The small white building was illuminated eerily in the dark, and the lights revealed three jet black, official-looking cars parked out in front. Vans behind us transported Davis’ attorneys, and family members of the victim, Columbus native Mark MacPhail.

As we walked into the Death House, we were directed to a wooden pew two rows behind MacPhail’s family. Guards and state officials stood shoulder to shoulder along the wall. Sudden movements were discouraged.

The mood was elegiac. This wasn't a celebration. The guards were just doing their jobs. So was the warden, who was the first to address us.

Davis lay strapped to the gurney under a white sheet, his arms spread wide. The room behind the glass windows and curtain looked much like a hospital room. This, however, was the opposite of a hospital.

I expected Davis to say something profound. A man who maintained his innocence as loudly as Davis had to say something that might haunt his accusers, I thought to myself this past week.

I was right.

He looked right at the MacPhail family and implored the persons in the room to "look deeper into this case so that you really can finally see the truth." I scribbled that phrase furiously and then re-wrote it clearly so that others could hear it. Then he asked God to have mercy on the souls of the people preparing to take his life.

Unlike I imagine an electrocution to be, death by lethal injection is rather anticlimactic. It’s so unclear when Davis has died that two doctors are needed to check his heartbeat, which was stopped by an injection of potassium chloride.

Perhaps we won't ever know to an absolute certainty each detail of what happened in that Burger King parking lot in Savannah on Aug. 19, 1989. I was three years old and wasn't there. People who were have since changed their testimony.

But I can say unequivocally that I will never forget the events of Sept. 21, 2011.

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