Finding Humanity on Death Row

By Gautam Narula

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A friend once asked me, “Do you believe in the death penalty?”

“Yes,” I replied. “Criminals who commit heinous crimes don’t deserve to live.”

“Aren’t you worried that we might execute an innocent person?”

“No more worried than these murderers were when they executed their victims.”

I was only 15, and my heart had hardened.

A few weeks after this conversation, I walked into Georgia’s largest maximum security prison to meet Troy Davis, a man who had come within 24 hours of being executed—twice. Davis was convicted of murdering a police officer based solely on nine eyewitness testimonies, but seven of those testimonies had been recanted. Although I supported the death penalty, I was troubled that Davis had come so close to execution despite strong evidence of his innocence. Following security clearance, I entered one of the death row visitation cells, and shortly afterwards Davis walked in. Over the next six hours I listened intently to his version of what happened the night the police officer was shot. I recoiled in horror as I learned of the rape and torture prisoners were subjected to from both fellow prisoners and the guards themselves. I cried silently when he spoke of the pain of ending his engagement to his true love after his conviction. I marveled at the absence of any bitterness or cynicism despite two decades of unjust incarceration and two executions halted at the last minute.

In the prison visitation lobby, I saw the general population (non-death row) inmates who were allowed to freely mingle with visitors. Here were the monsters I so detested; the armed robbers, the rapists, the murderers. I saw these men hugging their families. I saw an eight-year-old boy wearing a “Free My Father” T-shirt. I learned that many of these men battled addiction, or had suffered abuse and abandonment as children. Had these men failed society, or were they products of a society that had failed them? Just a few weeks earlier I would have thought the former. But now, I was not so sure.

In that six hour visit, Troy Davis had become the face of a system I could no longer blindly accept. The death penalty assumes flawless delivery of justice every time, but this will never be the case. Viewing the inmates as human beings rather than faceless criminals forced me to question whether I had the right to condemn a person to death. Seeing the injustice in Troy’s case awakened a consciousness of social justice that had been dormant all my life. He inspired a vision of a kinder and better world, one that I want to help create. When I recall those prison bars that continue to cage a man staring squarely at an unjust death, I realize an irrefutable truth about my life—its purpose is not to just serve myself, or my community, or even my country, but all of mankind. As I left the prison, I smiled at the irony. With the help of a man on death row, I had found my humanity.

** The execution date for Troy Davis has been set for September 21st - September 28th, 2011. **


Gautam Narula is a Foundation Fellow at the University of Georgia.

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