BY RAY PARSONS
CHICAGO - Early May 17, officials at Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, Illinois, injected three lethal chemicals into the arm of Girvies Davis, killing him over the course of six minutes.
The state convicted and sentenced Davis to death in the 1978 murder of Charles Biebel. No physical evidence linked him to the murder. The case was based mainly on confessions police claim Davis offered to make in a written note to his jailers, then freely read and signed. But Davis was illiterate at the time of his arrest, a fact not made known to trial jurors.
The confessions were produced after police took Davis on a late night ride "looking for evidence." Davis explained that he had been taken to an isolated spot, his handcuffs removed, and the offer made: try running away, or sign the papers presented before him.
"I signed everything they had," Davis said. "I was fearful for my life. I found out later I had signed statements for 10 murders and 10 attempted murders and my Miranda rights." Included were confessions to nine other murders. The prosecution now acknowledges that three of these murders were committed by other people.
During the trial against Davis, who is Black, the prosecution used preemptory challenges to exclude all Blacks from the jury. This practice was later held to be unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. The ruling did not apply retroactively.
The Girvies Davis Clemency committee led a campaign for justice in Davis' case that involved a wide array of death penalty abolitionists, religious figures, civil liberties activists, and youth from area colleges and high schools. Several street protests were organized including one of 300 people May 6. The case received wide attention in the media in Illinois and around the world. Lawyers for Davis put defense information on the Internet, and Illinois Governor Jim Edgar's office received some 1,200 e-mail messages of protest from around the world.
The Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty has campaigned tirelessly against Davis's death sentence. Seth Donnelly, the group's executive director, said the obvious frame-up nature of this case was responsible for bringing together a broad opposition.
Prof. David Protess and a team of graduate students at Northwestern University's school of journalism worked extensively to uncover the trial inconsistencies key to Davis' appeal for clemency. Protess was joined by eight area law professors at a press conference May 14 to call on Edgar to block the scheduled execution.
At DePaul University, student activists of Students for a Democratic Society, Amnesty International, and other groups sponsored a campus forum in defense of Davis on May 11, drawing 30 participants. At a May 15 rally outside the State of Illinois Building in downtown Chicago, Darby Tillis spoke in defense of Davis. Tillis spent nine years in prison on frame-up charges, four of those years on death row. It took five trials, with three hung juries, before Tillis was acquitted.
U.S. Congressman Donald Payne, representing the Congressional Black Caucus, wrote to Edgar, "There are just too many inconsistencies in the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt decisions that were made in this case."
Even proponents of capital punishment felt compelled to distance themselves from the Davis execution. Former Chicago police chief Richard J. Brzeczek came forward, worried that "I'm very much in favor of the death penalty, but this is the kind of case that gives capital punishment a bad name."
In an interview with the Militant, Donnelly pointed to the importance of fighting the use of capital punishment. "This struggle is becoming more central to the struggle for human rights," he said. Promotion of the death penalty "is one of the primary tools used by politicians to divert attention from the real source of the problems of society."
Ray Parsons is a member of United Transportation Union
Local 620 in Cicero, Illinois.
Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home