Seattle filmmaker Jen Marlowe's short-form documentary, "A Life in the Balance: Examining the Troy Davis Case," is one of the films that was featured in the Social Justice Film Festival that took place in Seattle earlier this month. But the film is just the tip of the iceberg for a painful topic that Marlowe covers much more extensively in her new book, "I Am Troy Davis."
Marlowe's co-authors, Martina Davis-Correia and Troy Anthony Davis, are both dead now - one from cancer, and the other by lethal injection. But those two siblings put up a fight that captured attention around the world.
In 1989, Troy Davis was a young black man living with his family in Savannah when he was accused of shooting and killing a cop. Davis voluntarily turned himself in to the local authorities to clear up any misunderstandings and demonstrate his innocence. Instead he was arrested, tried and convicted on circumstantial evidence, and sentenced to death.
For two decades, Troy's big sister Martina spearheaded the legal fight to prove that her brother had been wrongly convicted. In the lengthy appeals process, much of the evidence was exposed as flimsy, and numerous eyewitnesses came forward to recant their initial testimony against Troy. Some said that they had been harassed into identifying him as the gunman by an overzealous police force. Others let on that they had been threatened by another man who had been on the scene that night and who had every reason to direct attention away from his own actions that evening.
But despite being able to invalidate these statements that had been used as key pieces of evidence against Troy, his underfunded public defenders could not overcome an aggressive prosecutorial establishment, the racially charged atmosphere of the state of Georgia, and the clandestine workings of the parole board. Ultimately the sentence held, and Troy was executed in 2011.
Two months later, Martina died of cancer.
For the last year and a half of Troy's life, Jen Marlowe had worked with the brother and sister to tell the story of the Davis family. Both Troy and Martina felt that this was not only the story of one man entangled in a judicial nightmare, but also an opportunity to expose the problems of a criminal justice system that profiles specific populations, and that allows arbitrary and disproportionate application of the death penalty to black men.
Readers seeking a discussion of the prosecutor's side of this story will have to look elsewhere. This book clearly sympathizes with Troy Davis - as did many thousands of people from around the world, including figures such as former FBI director William Sessions, former Georgia Congressman Bob Barr and the Pope, all of whom protested the execution.
"I Am Troy Davis" became the rallying cry of people protesting the racism that still threads through our justice system.
This opinionated book will cause strong emotions and, for some people, perhaps challenge the faith they have in the criminal justice system.
Barbara Lloyd McMichael writes a weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at email@example.com