Sunday, 25 September 2011

Am I Troy Davis? Or am I Khajeel Mais? Am I even significant?

I asked this question as I observed the views expressed  by black people the world over in the final 24 hours leading up to the execution of Troy Davis. I’ve read too many articles about this case, almost all of which were drenched in bias either for or against the stance taken by the state since the arrest of Troy Davis. As a law student, this case really hit home because it brought to the forefront a very controversial issue within law: the death penalty- yay or nay? I will not pretend to truly have set position in regards to this issue. I have, in the past, said that I am all for it but then I had certain conditions that had to be fulfilled before that would be “okay”.

I recall having serious debates with colleagues of mine about this issue. We, of course, looked at cases like Pratt V Morgan and Attorney General V Joseph and Boyce where the major concerns of “cruel and inhumane treatment” and the right to appeal came up. The guidelines adopted by courts under the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council was garnered from the cases of Pratt V Morgan and the resulting principle was that anyone convicted of murder and sentenced to the death penalty had the right to exhaust all appeal options through all courts in the hierarchy in an effort to have their sentenced commuted to life imprisonment. I will refrain from giving details in these cases because it is not a lecture and I am mindful of the fact that non-law student readers are present.

All the same, I bring these cases up to say that my opinion on the Troy Davis case was formulated bearing the justice system of my country and region in mind. That should have been the first red flag for me because a major difference to note is that Troy Davis was tried under the justice system of the United States of America. Their laws and methods of carrying out justice are quite different. Their justice system is based on federal and statutory laws. In the Caribbean region and the United Kingdom, the justice system is based on common law as well as statutory laws. Statutory means official documentation of laws on the books for our states. Each country is a state. So basically, the way they do things and the way we do things are different.
Cruel and inhumane treatment was thought to be what a man experiences when he is on death row for a certain amount of time. The traumatic psychological effects that a man would experience with each passing day- the uncertainty of when your number would be called, getting nervous and fearful each time the guard walked toward your cell- was thought to be too much for any man to be put through, horrendous crime committed aside. As such, based on the fact that it is a breach of a constitutional right to be surrendered to this kind of treatment, it was then established that any man who was on death row for more than five (5) years (3.5 if no resort was made to human rights bodies) would have his sentence automatically commuted.
As I said before, our justice system is based on common law (based on decisions of cases that have set precedence rather than statutes) and operates differently than that of the American system. They have no such rule or principle to follow that is akin to the Pratt V Morgan principle. There have been many theories about the decisions being due to the fact that Troy was a black man and that the state in which he was tried was one of the most racist in the country. How much of that is true, we won’t ever really know. What we do know is that some sort of injustice was served and that the facts do not add up.

There was just too much doubt.

And therein lays my major problem. For a case involving murder and capital punishment, the offender should be convicted beyond a reasonable doubt. A police officer was killed while off-duty while he tried to break up a fight between a homeless man and one or two other men. He was shot in the chest and face. I have read that there were 34 witnesses and I have read that there were 9. I have read that the slain officer himself “testified” and said it was Troy who shot him. How a man who was shot in the chest and then in the face at close range can later testify is beyond me. What is clear is that the nine (9) were the major witnesses, seven (7) of which recanted their statements years later and said that they lied for one reason or another. I have read that there was no physical evidence and I have heard that there was but it was not admitted due to the fact that it was acquired without a warrant. Very sloppy, if I do say so myself. I have also read that there was another major suspect who was not even investigated even though all signs pointed to him as a person of interest. Funny enough, this person is the same person that was with Troy that night, who was seen and has admitted to arguing with the homeless man and was the first one to report Troy as the murderer. What I have not read is that there was any definitive proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Troy Davis was the killer. And yet, it was enough to have him on death row for 22 years and execute him after him exhausting all his appeals for a stay of execution.

The Troy Davis case had apparently shone a light on the gaps in the legal system and it has riled up many especially those of us who love to shout racism. When I saw my own Jamaican people get involved, I took it all in. Many of us identified with the “I am Troy Davis” movement and while the message is admirable, the fact is that we were not really moved until it became an international sensation and until the final hours. Would we have cared if it was not such a firestorm in the media? Even more important to note was the fact that as “moved” as we were, all we did was to update statuses on Facebook and Twitter to share our opinions and feelings. It can be argued that we were too far to really affect any change. Those who were closer to in proximity went a bit farther and signed petitions and protested. But, in truth, I wonder if this was enough. Not enough to save Troy because clearly it wasn't but enough to have our voices heard and effect the change we say we need.

Just the same, I look at the case of Khajeel Mais and I wonder about the reasons that we all felt moved enough to act. Khajeel was a 17-year old high school student in Jamaica who was shot in the head while the taxi he was in was driving off after a crash into a BMW X-6 (or is it 7?). Khajeel died. The taxi driver allegedly decided to drive off after seeing the driver of the BMW step out of his vehicle with a gun in hand. This is a most tragic story. A young man was killed because of road rage and ego and a level of entitlement that has fast become popular with my Jamaican people. Our lack of value for human life is heart-breaking. . In the hours and days following the shooting, broadcast messages were sent out asking for help in finding the driver of the BMW who had apparently just disappeared. We later heard that this individual had fled the country. At this point in time, the news has said that the individual allegedly responsible has turned himself in to authorities and the case is now in court. What’s significant about this is that people actually cared and were moved to respond and the story was not allowed to die down like so many others have.  And then I wonder, would we have cared and would this story have stayed in the news if Khajeel was not a relative of a prominent member of our society?

The fact is, we have become terribly desensitized to death. We are a jaded people. And unless it happens to our close, blood relatives or loved ones we turn a blind eye and a cold heart to situations unless they are the topic of the day in which case, we forget within 24 hours. For me, it matters not why we care, even though I still wonder; it just matters that we do. Saying “I am Troy Davis” says I identify with the notion that “the system” has no respect for me as a black person and does not care about me and I want it to change. But in saying that I would be ignoring the fact that my own people who do  not care about me unless “I am Khajeel Mais”- unless I am from or affiliated with people who have influence. Now, I know some of us did not care about these cases solely because of those reasons but the masses did not grab on a hold on to these stories merely because they were injustices- injustices happen every  day- there were other factors at work.  The sooner we acknowledge this and work to fix it, the better off we can be as a people and the more effective we will be at changing our justice systems we so desperately claim need changing.


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