I’ll be speaking at The Moth Main Stage in Boston on April 27! Tickets are available for purchase at https://themoth.org/events/the-moth-mainstage-in-boston-3.
I noticed this when I voted for the first time in 2012: Georgia’s ballot initiatives, which are typically amendments to the state constitution, are frighteningly biased in their wording to push voters into voting yes.
Here are the ballot initiatives, verbatim1, for 2016, which Georgians are voting on as I type these words:
Provides greater flexibility and state accountability to fix failing schools through increasing community involvement.
Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow the state to intervene in chronically failing public schools in order to improve student performance?
Authorizes penalties for sexual exploitation and assessments on adult entertainment to fund child victims’ services.
Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow additional penalties for criminal cases in which a person is adjudged guilty of keeping a place of prostitution, pimping, pandering, pandering by compulsion, solicitation of sodomy, masturbation for hire, trafficking of persons for sexual servitude, or sexual exploitation of children and to allow assessments on adult entertainment establishments to fund the Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Children Fund to pay for care and rehabilitative and social services for individuals in this state who have been or may be sexually exploited?
Reforms and re-establishes the Judicial Qualifications Commission and provides for its composition, governance, and powers.
Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended so as to abolish the existing Judicial Qualifications Commission; require the General Assembly to create and provide by general law for the composition, manner of appointment, and governance of a new Judicial Qualifications Commission, with such commission having the power to discipline, remove, and cause involuntary retirement of judges; require the Judicial Qualifications Commission to have procedures that provide for due process of law and review by the Supreme Court of its advisory opinions; and allow the Judicial Qualifications Commission to be open to the public in some manner?
Dedicates revenue from existing taxes on fireworks to trauma care, fire services, and public safety.
Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended so as to provide that the proceeds of excise taxes on the sale of fireworks or consumer fireworks be dedicated to the funding of trauma care, firefighter equipping and training, and local public safety purposes?
Given the very low proportion of voters who actually research these initiatives in-depth, who would actually vote against these? Look at the title of Amendment 1! Yet deeper examination, especially on Amendment 3, reveals disturbing aspects of some of these amendments that are obscured by their biased phrasing. (Just start Googling if you’re curious)
While voters should research what they’re voting on, that shouldn’t give the state a free pass to deceive them. I’d be surprise if any of these amendments fail to pass; in the future, if you’re a Georgia voter and haven’t researched the ballot initiative, leave it blank, or, if you’re going to vote on something you haven’t researched (which the vast majority of people voting “yes” are doing”), just vote no, regardless of what the amendment is. Don’t let the state deceive you2.
- View the text of the ballot initiatives at http://sos.ga.gov/admin/uploads/2016_Proposed_Constitutional_Amendments.pdf
- Perhaps the solution is to implement something like California’s State Voter Guides, which features, “an impartial analysis of the proposal and the potential costs to taxpayers as prepared by the Legislative Analyst’s Office, arguments in favor and against it prepared by proponents and opponents, the text and a summary prepared by the Attorney General or the Legislature, as well as other information.” While certainly there is opportunity for bias in this system, it’s still an order of magnitude better than Georgia’s current ballot deception.
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Five years ago today, my friend Troy Davis was wrongfully executed. One year ago today, I published Remain Free to share his story.
In that one year:
- Remain Free beat out a New York Times bestseller written by a US president for the Georgia Author of the Year Award
- Remain Free has been featured in NRI Pulse, India New England News, Khabar Magazine, and the Sunday edition of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Khabar Magazine, and India New England News
- I’ve spoken at MIT, Cornell, UGA, Georgia State, Kennesaw State, high schools, Amnesty International groups, and CreativeMornings Boston (with a few more to come!)
- I’ve met and talked to incredible people from all walks of life who share a passion for reforming our justice system, ranging from the parents of other teenagers who’ve befriended death row inmates to rappers, fashion designers, entrepreneurs, and everything in-between.
To mark the one year anniversary of the publication of the physical copy of Remain Free, the one many of you made possible, I just published the Kindle version so people all over the world can read it. As with the physical version, all profits will be donated to the Innocence Project. And of course, the book can be read in serialized from for free on remainfree.com
In the end, this was to serve the mission of sharing Troy’s story with as many people as possible. A huge thanks to all of you who’ve supported this journey that began around this time eight years ago.
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CreativeMornings Boston has posted my talk from May 2016, titled “Coming of Age on Death Row”. The teaser:
I fight to live so you can remain free
What happens when the realities of a suburban teenager and the world’s most well-known death row inmate collide? The answer involves secret phone recordings, a maximum-security prison, bizarre interpretations of the Eighth Amendment, a tense confrontation with a Supreme Court justice, and an unlikely friendship that would alter the future of both involved
Thanks to all the fine people of CM Boston for hosting me!
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I’ll be hosting a Remain Free book discussion and signing at Trident Booksellers (338 Newbury St, Boston, MA 02115) on Monday, May 16, at 7:00 PM! I’ll be reading several excerpts from the book and discussing the events within those excerpts in more detail, as well as the process of writing the book. Trident is Boston’s largest independent bookstore and they’ve got great food as well, so I hope to see you there!
Serializing Remain Free
I wrote Remain Free with one primary mission in mind: to share Troy Davis’s story with as many people as possible. To that end, I’m serializing Remain Free online (at www.remainfree.com) and making it freely available for anyone to read. You can begin reading it here. I also have plans to serialize an audiobook version of Remain Free in the form of a podcast. In both cases, new sections/episodes will be posted weekly.
If you prefer a physical version, a hardcover copy is available on Amazon. As before, all profits from physical and e-book sales will be donated to the Innocence Project.
Thanks again to the many people who supported this book when I first began writing it as an eighteen-year-old.
Keynote Address at the Cornell International Affairs Conference VI, November 5, 2015
Good evening. Before I begin, I’d like to thank the Cornell International Affairs Society for giving the opportunity to speak to you all tonight, and for organizing this wonderful conference.
Tonight, I want to tell you a story. It begins when I was 15 years old, on September 3, 2008, in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia. I received a phone call from a friend. He was an intern for Amnesty International, a human rights organization I had never heard of. He told me about this man on death row in Georgia named Troy Davis. Troy Davis was convicted in 1991 for the 1989 murder of a police officer in Savanah, Georgia. There was no gun, no DNA evidence. Instead, his conviction rested primarily on nine eyewitness testimonies. In the years that followed, seven of the nine eyewitnesses recanted their testimonies. Many of them said the police coerced or intimidated them into testifying against Troy Davis. Despite all this evidence that he may be innocent, Davis was going to be executed in just 20 days.
At the time, I didn’t think it was a big deal. I was a supporter of the death penalty, as most other people in Georgia are. Troy Davis couldn’t possibly be innocent—we had a justice system that protected the innocent and dispensed fair, just punishments to the guilty. If he were innocent, he wouldn’t have lost appeal after appeal.
But there was one small detail that stood out to me, one tiny thing that, in hindsight, changed my life forever. Davis was scheduled to be executed on September 23, while the Supreme Court was due to review his case on September 29. Why? He had been on death row for nearly two decades. Why couldn’t Georgia wait six more days for the highest court in the land to review his case? A fair justice system wouldn’t do that.
On September 23, 90 minutes before the scheduled execution, the US Supreme Court intervened and prevented Troy Davis from being executed. The next day, I sent him a letter. At his invitation, I visited him on death row five days later.
Before I went there, my idea of death row was Alcatraz blended with the gulag. I imagined death row to be dark and dank, filled with angry muscular men, killers and rapists who were destroyers of lives and families. They seemed more beast than human. They were monsters.
Before, everyone in here was just a mugshot and a name written in fine newsprint. But now, as I saw them talking and smiling and laughing and crying, no different than me, it was inescapable that they were . . . human. These were bodies and souls that had known loss and love, cruelty and kindness, pain and joy—beings that had known life. One inmate held his four-year-old daughter up with tears of joy. A boy my age was clad in a shirt with the words “Free My Dad” on the back. Troy told me about the background of many of the other death row inmates—how they had suffered from neglect, child abuse, and drug addiction. He told me about a man who was abandoned as a child. His mother was addicted to drugs, his father was nowhere to be found, and he slept in a dog kennel for shelter. That began the downward spiral that resulted in him on death row.
He told me his own story, about growing up as a quiet kid struggling to fit in, about seeing his hometown get taken over by drugs and gangs in the 1980s. He saw his friends start doing drugs, dealing drugs, or both. He told me his version of what happened the night of the shooting. He was at the wrong place at the wrong time. He didn’t shoot the police officer; he didn’t even have a gun that night. But once somebody else said he did it, the police didn’t consider any alternative suspects and the media started a witch hunt and convicted him in the court of public opinion. He turned himself in, because he thought he could tell the police his side of the story and they’d let him go. When he turned himself in, they hurled racial slurs at the black man who had taken one of their own. They tried to poison his food in the county jail when he was awaiting trial.
He told me he no longer celebrates his birthday, or Christmas, or New Year’s. Why bother, he told me, when it’s just another day you can’t be with the people you love? He said every time he sees his family it’s like they instantly age 20 years, because in his dreams and memories he always sees them as they were in 1989, when he was first locked up. In those 20 years, his father had died, his sister had been diagnosed with cancer, and the rest had aged, lost muscle, gained wrinkles. Every time they visited, he relived all of that. He said the first thing he was going to do when he was a free man was go to his mother’s house and sleep at the foot of her bed so that, when she woke up, she’d know this wasn’t a dream and that her son was finally home.
We grew close. The prison only allowed me to visit him every few months, but in between visits we wrote letters and talked on the phone. He began calling me his “adopted nephew” and signed his letters “Uncle Troy.”
While all of this was going on, Troy’s story attracted a lot of international attention, in part because of the growing international trend against capital punishment. The United Nations began angling for restricted use and eventual abolition of the death penalty in the 1960s. This has culminated in a series of successive resolutions since 2007 (the year Troy Davis first faced execution) that have imposed a moratorium on the death penalty, with the long term goal of its abolition. Year after year, the United States stands in the minority of countries voting against those resolutions, along with countries like China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has openly stated that the death penalty has no place in the 21st century. The UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights specifically spoke out against Troy Davis’s execution.
The European Union, where the death penalty has been abolished, wrote directly to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to speak out against Troy Davis’s execution. The European Parliament passed a resolution calling for Troy Davis’s sentence to be commuted and for Georgia to grant him a retrial. Two Nobel Peace Prize winners spoke out against his execution. So did the Pope. All of these international institutions and figures didn’t speak out about Troy Davis because this was just a specific case of an innocent man slipping through the cracks. Rather, it was because his case was one of the most egregious examples of a system that was in itself a human rights violation.
That got me thinking, how do these human rights violations occur? What makes them possible? They occur when we successfully dehumanize the victims. And by only presenting mugshots and rap sheets, our society has dehumanized those on death row. I saw whole human beings as nothing more than the worst mistake they had ever made, as mugshots and rap sheets. And it was only by going to death row and building a personal connection with the people there was I able to break through that.
I think I would’ve eventually opposed capital punishment if I hadn’t met Troy Davis. There are plenty of practical reasons to oppose it. But I wouldn’t be here talking to you tonight. I wouldn’t have signed petitions. I wouldn’t have organized meetings. I wouldn’t have joined rallies. I wouldn’t have become a human rights activist. I wouldn’t have written a book. I wouldn’t have built the personal connection with many other people that convinced them to turn against the death penalty. I wouldn’t have a life’s mission like I do today, which is to fulfill Troy’s dream of a nation without any more Troy Davises.
My challenge to you is to find your Troy Davis. Find that personal connection to your work, whatever it is. If you’re a writer, go and talk to the people who read what you write. If you’re a programmer, meet the people who use your code. If you’re a teacher, truly understand your students. If you’re a fashion designer, meet those who wear your clothes. Find the people who are directly impacted by what you do.
Having proximity to your work changes you. It makes you believe that what you’re doing truly makes a difference, because you’ve seen it with your own eyes. It makes you understand that what you do actually has a real impact on other people. It’s so easy for us to get caught in the ivory tower, to write memos and join committees and make resolutions, without actually doing the hands-on work needed to see the actual, on-the-ground impact of our work. It’s like having a super power, because when you have that inspiration, when you have that motivation, you will always be better and more effective than the people who don’t.
In the end, by a margin of one vote, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles let Troy Davis be executed. But he wasn’t afraid to die. I talked to him, and he said, “God hasn’t failed me. He just isn’t ready for me to come home yet. Look at all the people I’ve inspired, people like you. Millions of people around the world know my name, and know I’m not the only one. If I die, I don’t want my supporters to fade away in sorrow. I want them to get angry and fight for other Troy Davises out there, and fight for human rights all round the world.”
Go out and find your Troy Davis. Gain your superpower. It may not be easy, but in such cases I always remember what Troy told me whenever I doubted myself: The only person who can stop you from doing something is you.
(Photo courtesy of the Cornell International Affairs Society)
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Remain Free: A Memoir
On this day, four years ago, Georgia executed my friend, my mentor, my uncle, Troy Davis. I believe he was innocent. Today I’m officially releasing Remain Free, so the world doesn’t forget who he was or the truth of what really happened.
I wish you all could’ve met him. My greatest hope with Remain Free is that, through the hundreds of recorded conversations, letters, and in-person visits that make up this book, Troy’s voice shines through and you get a sense of who he really was.
Today I visited Troy’s grave. I had decided ahead of time that, instead of a party or some kind of flashy event, Remain Free’s “launch” would be me leaving him a copy on his grave in Savannah. My mother was concerned–what’ll happen to the book? Would it get damaged by the rain? What if someone with bad intentions got a hold of it? I was firm that I wanted to leave the book there, and let whatever would happen, happen. It was my way of showing Troy that I didn’t forget about him, and that his struggle was important enough to bring thousands of people together to bring this very object left on his grave into existence.
She then said, “I hope this book falls into the hands of the right person, someone who is destined to read this book.”
A few minutes later, a man approached us as we stood at the grave. He was in his fifties or sixties, black, several inches shorter than me. He wore a blue hat to protect his face from the harsh Savannah sun that had emerged from the rain clouds. His name was Leonard and he worked for the cemetery. We told him why we were there. His eyes widened. “You knew Troy Davis?” he asked incredulously. He was a Savannah native and familiar with the case, but was eager to learn more about Troy, about how he changed our lives.
My mother continued to talk to him while I opened the copy of Remain Free I brought with me and started writing a message to Troy. When I finished, the man said, “I’ll leave you two alone to meditate on Troy’s grave. But please, let me give you my email address. I want to follow this story. I want to learn more about Troy.” He walked away, and I realized that he was exactly what my mother had asked for, just minutes earlier. I picked up the book, and the I Am Troy Davis wristband, and walked toward the cemetery office and handed both objects to him. There was a mixture of gratitude and excitement in his voice when I gave it to him. He never told us why he walked across the entire cemetery to talk to us…just that he was glad he did. Maybe he was destined to be the one who read Troy’s copy.
I wasn’t planning on sharing the note I wrote for Troy in that book, but I realized that, in a sense, we’ve all taken this journey together. You all put your faith in me when I was a teenager with a dream and an overambitious timeline. The least I could do is return that trust by sharing what I wrote to Troy in the front cover of the book:
It’s hard to believe four years have passed. I wish you were still here to see what kind of man I’ve become. I’ve been a bit lost since you’ve been gone. I haven’t lived up to my full potential. I could’ve used your guidance during these years. I hope that, despite my failures, you’d still be proud of me. I wrote the book, just like you said I should. This book brought hundreds of people together to make it possible—people who’ve never met you, many of whom have never met me. They all came together because they believed this story—our story—was something worth telling, something worth sharing.
I promise that as long as I’m alive, people won’t forget your story. I promise I won’t stop fighting until the death penalty is ended in the United States. I promise I’ll fight to live up to my full potential, to make the world a better place and to save the other Troy Davises out there. It’s been four years since I’ve written a letter. Here is my longest letter to you, for you.
Your adopted nephew,
The last time I was here I was filled with sadness, but today I’m filled with gratitude. Thanks for making Remain Free possible.
The most direct route was to go down 400 and onto 75, slicing through the heart of Atlanta from top to bottom and following the interstate straight to Jackson. We instead took 285, circling the city and enveloping ourselves in the sprawling suburbs that ringed downtown until we merged back onto 75. It was about forty miles of monotony from there—stifled yawns, graffiti-covered buildings, and the occasional patch of pine trees until Exit 201. There wasn’t much to see in Jackson, population five thousand and county seat of the unfortunately named Butts County. The main road was deserted—just a trucker gas station and some empty parking lots. We drove until we saw a sign on the left: GEORGIA DIAGNOSTIC PRISON.
The road onto the prison campus was narrow but smooth. Tall pines lined the shoulders, which gave way to woods. A squat cottage—the warden’s, we were later told—nestled in a clearing against the woods amid lush, manicured grass. The cottage sat astride an idyllic lake where geese floated lazily by a wooden dock. Birds chirped, and I could feel the simple yet elegant beauty of it all.
But something felt off. Why was this here? This was an odd place to hold rapists and murderers. It was an even odder place to kill them.
The road ended in a two level parking lot. Behind it, a fence draped in barbed wire formed a rectangle that extended to the horizon, interrupted only by the emotionless vigilance of carefully placed watchtowers. Everything was white: the buildings, the prison vans, the watchtowers, even the helipad attached to the parking lot by a thin strip of concrete. Pranavi shuddered. My mother just stared ahead.
When I walk outside the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, I am free. When I go in, I am a criminal. My pockets are searched and emptied before I walk through a metal detector. Wallets, ID cards, and keys are confiscated, and our clothes are thoroughly checked to ensure minimal skin exposure. My hand is stamped so they know when I come and when I go. I am shepherded through a series of cramped cages where the door behind me closes before the one in front opens.
As I walk I feel the gaze of dozens of electronic and human eyes. Inspirational posters crowd the walls, ignored by those who work here and unseen by those who live here. I bound past an elevator for the handicapped, which hasn’t worked in months, and walk up a flight of stairs where a bulletin board lists my rights as a visitor.
The visitor’s lobby: On the left are two microwaves and a few vending machines, which will rapidly deplete the eighty quarters we bring in to replace Troy’s missed meal. On the right are two bathrooms. In the center is the main visitor area, where non-death row inmates sit with their visitors without the restrictions of bars or handcuffs. Their white jumpsuits read “Georgia Dept. of Corrections” on the back.
One inmate runs to his four-year-old daughter and picks her up with tears of joy. A boy my age is clad in a shirt with the words “Free My Dad” on the front. Beyond a glass wall and yellow bars, prisoners trundle along, occasionally followed by guards.
Welcome to Troy Davis’s home.
Troy Davis, inmate 657378, walks in now, bound in handcuffs. Two guards escort him to the visitation cell, a long, narrow room with concrete walls on three sides and reinforced glass and metal mesh on the fourth. We follow them in, and once Troy is inside they remove his handcuffs and walk out, locking the door behind them. He hugs each of us before we sit down. Then he begins his story.
September 3, 2008.
I was watching TV when the phone call came.
“Hey, it’s Sahil. Do you have a second to talk?” Sahil was a childhood friend a few years older than me. While his parents and my mother had been friends for decades, he’d never called before. Why now? He lived too far away to see regularly, and we’d drifted apart over the years. I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d seen him.
“Sure,” I said. “What’s up?”
“Have you heard of Troy Davis?”
“He’s an inmate on Georgia’s death row, convicted of killing a cop in Savannah. There’s a lot of evidence that he’s innocent. I’ve been working on the case at Amnesty International for a while, and I visited Troy on death row. He’ll be executed in a couple of weeks, so I’ve been calling everyone I know to get them involved before it’s too late.”
I handed the phone to my mother and drifted away from the call. Plenty of death row inmates preached their innocence to all who’d listen. Surely, after decades of trial and appeal, the man’s innocence would have come to light. If he could lose in court time and time again, he must have been guilty. Far more likely that Troy Davis was lying than to have a faulty trial and faulty appeals. I shrugged it off and retreated to the bedroom to stupefy my mind with television.
But the topic resurfaced on the ride home from school a few days later.
“Remember what Sahil was saying, about Troy Davis?” my mother asked. The car remained motionless in Alpharetta’s rush-hour traffic. Her voice was somber, carrying a heavy weight. “I’ve been researching the case online. There are serious problems. Sahil was right.”
A Google search revealed Troy Davis was a black man convicted in 1991 of the 1989 murder of a white Savannah police officer, Mark MacPhail. His conviction rested primarily on nine eyewitness testimonies. Seven of those nine had recanted or altered their testimony, citing police coercion and intimidation. There was no physical evidence, no gun, and no DNA. It all sounded convincing on the surface. But if the evidence were as strong as Davis supporters claimed, why hadn’t the courts ordered a new trial? The claims Davis made of mistaken identity, shoddy evidence, witness tampering, a rushed and sub-par investigation, and a systematic denial of appeals on technicalities implied a legal system so brazenly unjust that they had to be false. Even Georgia, with its troubled history of segregation, lynchings, and race riots, couldn’t be so perverse. Not in 2008.
As I read through articles, one fact stood out: Georgia set the execution for September 23, 2008, but the Supreme Court was reportedly due to examine the case on September 29.
Why? The state had intentionally set an execution date days before the highest court in the country was to review the case. Troy Davis had been on death row for nearly two decades. What difference would a few more weeks make?
These questions brewed in my mind at school the next day. If the Supreme Court was going to review the case just six days later, if Troy Davis had already been on death row for seventeen years, if Georgia was so confident the evidence against Troy Davis was ironclad enough to kill him, why couldn’t they wait? There was no logical explanation for the state’s actions. Except . . . except that they wanted to kill Troy Davis before others could examine his case. But why should they care if others examine his case? They would only care if there was a chance they were wrong.
Could he really be innocent? And could that really happen here, in America? The justice system was a seamless machine—impartial, unemotional, and unerring. The machine’s input was the accused. There were two streams of output: the innocent, quickly and efficiently released; and the guilty, made to meet the highest bar of innocence until proven guilty and swiftly given a punishment fitting of the crime. Why would the machine operate like this? I struggled through my disbelief and confusion but couldn’t find answers.
In school we were always told the self-congratulatory story of the American system of justice, infused with lessons from the struggle for independence from the United Kingdom. The flagrant British disregard for basic liberties convinced our founders to secure the right to a trial by jury, a doctrine of innocent until proven guilty, and a system of appeals—safeguards we were told helped make us the greatest and freest nation in the world. The lynchings and segregation and race riots here in Georgia were now just fading words in textbooks. Those kinds of things didn’t happen anymore. We’d moved past them as a nation. America today was the land of the free, and the American legal system the envy of the world. We didn’t execute innocent people.
Besides, if someone committed a truly heinous crime, if they raped and tortured and gleefully killed innocent people, they didn’t deserve to live. The death penalty was the product of an implied social contract, a contract murderers violated. In doing so they forfeited their right to life, and their execution was morally justified. Perhaps it was a strange way for a fifteen-year-old to think, but how else could I reconcile the senselessness of murder with my belief that we were governed by cold, unerring logic?
The state motto—Wisdom, Justice, and Moderation—now seemed more a hollow, mocking reminder of what we really were than a declaration of what we aspired to be. Did we live in a world where we killed people for the sake of finality and call it justice?