Explaining the Death Penalty to My Children

A family struggles to understand why Georgia prisoner Troy Davis is scheduled to be executed, even though the case against him has fallen apart
Flickr/The World Coalition Against the Death Penalty

"How does it work?" my eight-year-old asked last Saturday morning . "Will he just stand there and have to -- let them kill him?"

She was asking me about Troy Davis, a man on Georgia's death row who is slated to be executed on September 21.
There's been much talk about Davis in our house, so the night before, I'd tried to explain: Found guilty of killing a police officer, Davis was sentenced to death in 1991, but in the meantime, the case against him has fallen apart.
Seven out of the nine people who said it was him have "recanted" or changed their testimony,  I told my daughter and her older brother, explaining what that meant. "What about the other two?" my son asked.
troy davis- reuters.JPG

Death row inmate Troy Davis / Reuters

Well, I don't know about one of them, I said, but the other -- Sylvester "Redd" Coles, the first person to accuse Davis -- might have actually been the shooter. Since Davis's conviction, several people have testified that he lied about Davis to protect himself. And boasted about getting away with it.
To make things worse, I said, they don't have any physical evidence against Davis either, nothing you can see or touch. What little physical evidence the State of Georgia once had it has since withdrawn -- new forensics technologies have revealed grievous error, and the assumptions of the past were shown to be wrong.
I explained a little about the appeals process, but also that once you're found guilty of something, it's very hard to get that changed. Try as I might, I couldn't reasonably explain to my children why the judge who heard new testimony at a 2010 hearing rejected that testimony -- I don't understand, I said, why he felt the witnesses must have been trustworthy in 1991, but that they no longer were 19 years later.
Especially, I said, because most of them said they'd been pressured by the police to blame Davis.
I turned to my 12-year-old boy, and explained that one witness was 16 years old at the time. Darrell "D.D." Collins now says he was alone in a room with five police officers -- no parent, no lawyer, just the police who were anxious and angry and looking for a suspect -- and they just kept yelling at him to say that it was Troy, threatening that he would go to jail if he didn't. So he finally did.
Imagine if that were you, I said to my boy. Imagine how frightened you would be.
There's one chance left, I said: Clemency. The Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles might decide that the case against Davis is simply too weak to support a death penalty, and they will commute his sentence.
We were at dinner at the time, so the conversation continued and meandered. Their dad explained why we oppose the death penalty generally ("me too," said the 8-year-old, "we shouldn't kill anybody"). Both kids said that they wished they could do something to help.
I admit I teared up at this point. I explained that this can't be their job right now, that fighting the death penalty has to be on the grownups. And that no matter how hard we try, we won't be able to get the world fixed by the time they grow up -- they'll be able to continue the work. That in the meantime, the fact of them in my life gives me the kind of joy and rest I need to be able to be available to people who need help.
Dinner ended and bedtime came. We read Harry Potter, snuggles were given and received. The night passed.
The next morning, the first words out of my daughter's mouth, sitting up in her bed, were about Troy Davis.
"You know how we were talking about Troy last night? How does that work?"
"I'm sorry," I had to say, "how does what work?"
"Well, how do they kill him? Will he just stand there and have to -- let them kill him?"
There are moments in parenting when not telling the whole truth is very important. I did not say "They will wheel Troy into a tiled room. They will strap him to a gurney. They will inject him with a series of drugs that will kill him in stages, despite the fact that there is real evidence that these drugs do not always work as smoothly as we are told. Despite the fact that he may suffer as he dies, they will strap him down, and people will watch, and they will inject him, and Troy Davis will die, even though he is almost certainly innocent."
Instead, I swallowed hard and thought about our cat, the one we put to sleep a couple years back, the one whose last living memory was of being in my arms. I said "Oh no, honey, they'll give him drugs like we gave Chauncey. The first one will make him sleep, and the next one will stop his heart. Do you remember how Chauncey died, quietly in my arms?"
I lied. I could not tell my daughter the truth. She's in third grade, and if she didn't have the mother she has, she wouldn't even be thinking about such awful things. I let her believe that it will be peaceful for Davis, that it will be like being held in someone's arms and falling asleep.
"But I still wish I could help," she said.
I thought hard, and suggested she write him a letter. She liked that idea: "If they were about to kill me and an 8-year-old girl wrote to me to tell me she believed me, that would help me feel better."
The day, then the weekend, passed and I thought -- I suppose I hoped -- that she'd forgotten. It's like I don't know my own daughter, though, because she is nothing if not a dog with a bone.
"Oh!" she suddenly said this morning. "I still have to write to Troy! And I better do it soon, because it has to be before the 21st."
And so this afternoon, that's what we'll do. We'll go to the site that the NAACP has set up for messages of support, and she will write to a man she has never met to tell him that she hopes he doesn't get killed for a crime he probably didn't commit.
And if the clemency bid fails, and Troy Davis is executed next week, I will tell her (and I will pray that it is so) that her message and all the other messages and all the well wishes of all the tens-of-thousands of people who have supported him these many long years were in his heart as authorities gave him those drugs -- that as his life ended, Troy Davis at the very least knew he was being held by tens-of-thousands of loving hands.