Troy Davis was an innocent man killed by the State of Georgia on September 21, 2012, after spending over twenty years on death row and facing four separate execution dates. His case sparked a worldwide movement to save his life.
I learned of Troy’s struggle through my work with the Campaign to End the Death Penalty (CEDP). That is how I first met Troy’s sister Martina Correia, whose passionate struggle to save Troy continues to inspire me.
Over the years I have seen how the stories of death-row prisoners and their families are a powerful call to action. Hearing a mother, grandfather, or sister talk about the fight for their loved one challenges people to view those on death row as individuals and to understand the grief and pain of their families that the system creates. A single case can illustrate the overarching problems with the death penalty—the racism and the lack of access to legal help that many prisoners and families face. Their words can make these political truths real in a way that a thousand statistics can’t.
At the end of the day, these stories stir our humanity and give our struggle a profound meaning. I Am Troy Davis is one of these stories.
It is not a book about “the Troy Davis case.” The details of the case are all there, but this is no dry procedural documenting every legal twist and turn; Troy’s innocence in the murder of police officer Mark McPhail is made clear throughout the narrative. While the facts of the case are offered in stages, all the important revelations are here: the false eyewitness testimony, the lack of physical evidence, and later the recantation of eyewitnesses, and the statements of new witnesses that provide evidence pointing to Sylvester “Red” Coles as the actual shooter.
Nor is this a book about the anti-death-penalty movement or even the larger movement to save Troy Davis. The various strategies and actions to win justice for Troy over the years are touched on only lightly throughout the book.
Rather, this is a story about the Davis family, and in particular the relationship between Troy and Martina, who was his fiercest advocate from the day of his arrest.
The book lists Jen Marlowe, Martina Correia, and Troy Davis as authors. Martina always wanted to write a book but never had the time. “I’d need someone to write it with me,” she told Marlowe, who describes a series of intensive interviews with Martina between 2010 and 2012. Troy contributed to the manuscript as well, through letters and by phone.
The book is not strictly chronological but jumps back and forth in time, which helps give the feeling of memories being recalled by later events.
Virginia and Joseph Davis had five children: Martina, Troy, Kimberly, Lester, and Ebony. They grew up a close-knit family in Savannah, Georgia.
The struggles that the Davis family faced are not shied away from in the book, and these stories can sometimes make for a very difficult read. There are descriptions of the Davis parents teaching their children the realities of racism, there is the story of young Kimberly’s battle with multiple sclerosis, and descriptions of the family’s financial troubles.
Later we read about Martina’s cancer diagnosis, which she battled during the last ten years of her life, while at the same time she fought the hardest for Troy’s life.
Born less than two years apart, Troy and Martina were close from the beginning. “T & T they called themselves, Tina and Troy. Together they could accomplish any feat.” People often thought they were twins.
Martina’s protectiveness toward Troy comes across in the narrative. It is no surprise that when Troy was falsely imprisoned, it was Martina who sprang into action on his behalf. The following anecdote from the book illuminate their closeness but also the difficulty of maintaining their relationship through prison bars.
Martina stormed out of a visitation after an argument with Troy. He called her as soon as she was home, wanting to make sure they were okay. She realized what she had done by leaving when he couldn’t. That night she dreamed she said goodbye to Troy only to glance back to see him talking with a slender black woman—which she realized was herself.
Martina awoke, unsure if she was still with Troy on death row or not. Then the meaning of the dream hit her. She snatched a piece of paper and a pen from her bedside table and wrote down the words that were swimming in her brain: I am Martina Correia and I’m on death row because that is where my brother lives.
Ten years later, an activist would write “I am Troy Davis” on a T-shirt for a rally, the embodiment of Martina’s late night revelation.
One of the most poignant parts of the book is the story of Troy’s relationship with Martina’s son De’Juan. De’Juan was born in 1993, three years after Troy was sent to death row. The book touchingly describes the first time Martina brought her baby to the prison to meet his uncle. Over the years, uncle and nephew formed an indescribable bond. Troy was like a father to De’Juan, helping him with his homework and constantly encouraging him.
In junior high school, De’Juan did a school project on Troy’s case that went all the way to state competitions and took the top prize in his division. When Virginia died, it was De’Juan who read Troy’s words for his mother during the funeral service. And at Troy’s final parole hearing, it was De’Juan who represented the Davis family, making a powerful appeal for Troy’s life: “It’s hard for me to imagine what life would be like without Uncle Troy. Losing him would mean losing my father, my teacher, my mentor—and my best friend. I love him so much. His death would devastate me. It would devastate my family.”
Finally, there is Troy’s execution. The final days and moments as experienced by Troy and his family are painstakingly recounted. It is no less devastating than that painful night two years ago, but all the more so, as we relive the murder through the eyes of a grief-stricken family.
Martina died on December 1, 2011, two months after Troy was murdered by the State of Georgia. In I Am Troy Davis, the voice that sounds the loudest is Martina’s. Her commitment to activism extended far beyond her brother’s case, both in her work for cancer awareness and against the death penalty. I would unabashedly describe Martina as a hero. I was constantly touched by her thoughtfulness toward her fellow activists; for example, the way she always sent a note on Mother’s Day and other holidays.
To the end, Troy and Martina were still fighting for justice. Just a few weeks before her passing, Martina and De’Juan addressed the CEDP’s annual convention. Martina encouraged folks to stay active in the struggle.
In a letter written just before his execution, Troy gave encouragement to his family and supporters: “There are so many more Troy Davises. This fight to end the death penalty is not won or lost through me, but through our strength to move forward and save every innocent person in captivity around the globe. We need to dismantle this unjust system city by city, state by state, and country by country!”
Every fighter for justice should read I Am Troy Davis. As heartbreaking as the ending is, this story shines as an inspiration in our ongoing struggles. Forever we should remember: We are all Martina Correia. We are all Troy Davis.