Reporters and state officials who’ve worked multiple executions at Georgia’s death-row prison in Jackson said what they saw Wednesday was unprecedented.
They didn’t mean the execution itself, but the attention it drew from across the state and the nation, and from around the world.
That attention was evidenced not just by media coverage from places as far away as France and Germany, nor by celebrities who chose to weigh in on whether Troy Anthony Davis was guilty or whether the death penalty itself was an injustice, but by the mass of protesters who came to the prison, and the swarm of law enforcement officers summoned to guard the prison gate.
The only execution that drew a comparable amount of resources was for the same man: Troy Davis, in 2008. He got a stay, and the protests melted away.
This time was different.
Davis was executed by lethal injection at the very end of a long day punctuated by tension and uncertainty.
By noon some TV stations already had their trucks parked outside the prison, but they had little to cover -- until 12:15 p.m., when political activist Al Sharpton arrived with two busloads of supporters.
Sharpton began giving a television interview that quickly grew into an impromptu press conference assailing Davis’ conviction.
“I feel that he was not proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and that’s all you need,” Sharpton told the Ledger-Enquirer.
Sharpton made his way toward the prison grounds, followed by a pack of protesters toting placards with phrases like “Free Troy Davis.”
Within the prison compound’s media space, the TV trucks and humming generators resembled an RV park. An area also was cordoned off for those who supported Davis’ execution. A lone woman occupied it.
Outside the prison compound, Sharpton and rapper Big Boi (of OutKast fame) spoke at a press conference urging clemency for Davis, whose scheduled execution at 7 p.m. rapidly was approaching.
Surrounded by family, Martina Davis-Correia, Davis’ sister, gave a statement. “We will never give up,” she said. “Troy Davis has impacted the world.”
She declined to detail her last conversations with her brother. “That’s something that’s very personal to our family,” she said.
Around 4 p.m., Superior Court Judge Thomas H. Wilson denied Davis a stay. By that time, many more clemency supporters had bussed in.
About 5:30 p.m., word spread that the Georgia Supreme Court also had rejected Davis’ appeal. A handful of media witnesses, including Ledger-Enquirer reporter Jim Mustian, were rounded up.
By 6 p.m. more than 1,000 people had gathered across from the prison. Many held posters and wore blue T-shirts with the words “I Am Troy Davis.” A drum accompanied their chants of “Let Troy out!” and “No justice, no peace!”
State authorities aimed to keep them on the four-laned highway's far side.
As protesters grew raucous, about 20 corrections officers in riot gear came to the prison gate, but did not advance beyond it.
Then a ruckus erupted across the street. Police moved in instantly and arrested two or three protesters.
At the prison gate, the officers in riot gear moved up to block the entrance. Soon their ranks swelled. Convoys of state troopers moved in as a helicopter hovered low overhead.
As 7 p.m. approached, some Davis supporters knelt outside the prison. Soon cheering erupted; some joined in without knowing the reason.
Rumors a stay of execution had been granted sparked the jubilation. Some people searched for that news on their cell phones, seeking official confirmation. Others continued to cheer.
Soon they learned Davis’ execution had been delayed, not stayed.
Around 7:20 p.m., reporters inside the prison heard what sounded like prisoners shouting. Were inmates reacting to the delay?
Some clemency supporters left after that, believing Davis would not be executed that night.
Others stuck around, across the road, at a truck stop with a convenience store, Dairy Queen and Wendy’s.
For the next three hours, reports of the Supreme Court’s progress would dribble out. First it was expected to rule by 8:30 p.m. Then sometime around 10. As the hours wore on, the crowd, smaller than the one that had gathered earlier, held candles outside the prison, and sang.
By 9:30, media witnesses inside the prison were served sandwiches and potato chips. They wondered what had caused the delay.
Finally, around 10:15, everyone outside the prison heard the news: The U.S. Supreme Court had denied Davis’ appeal, and the execution would go on.
Inside the prison, a guard in a light blue shirt approached the reporters and asked, “Y’all ready?”
No roar of outrage erupted when protesters heard the execution would proceed. If not for the constant drone of generators and whirr of the helicopter overhead, an eerie silence might have ensued.
Inside a designated and tightly monitored protest zone within the prison compound, Georgia State NAACP Conference President Ed DuBose, a man characteristically outspoken, was visibly subdued.
Where would the movement to save Davis go now?
“Our role now is to carry out Troy’s last words,” he said. “I met with Troy yesterday. Troy said, ‘If they execute me, I want you guys to continue to work hard to make sure that we end the death penalty in Georgia, so that another person that is innocent is never executed again in Georgia.’”
At about 10:40, media witnesses were again escorted to a white van to be taken to the Death House, where after proclaiming his innocence, Davis lay back, stared at the ceiling and prepared to die.
He was pronounced dead at 11:08 p.m.
A prison van took reporters who'd witnessed this to be interviewed by those waiting outside.
When the interviews ended, the Department of Corrections moved immediately to clear the prison compound, telling reporters to pack up and move out. The state helicopter buzzed even lower overhead.
Those leaving drove through a phalanx of stern, well-armed corrections officers. Most of the motorists turned west toward I-75, and headed home.
It was midnight. The last day of Troy Davis’ life was over, but not the controversy surrounding his death.
Staff writer Jim Mustian contributed to this report.