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Is Troy Davis still Troy Davis?

There are many reasons to be upset over yesterday's execution of Troy Davis. While I'm not an activist, I was pretty distressed by it all. The idea of anyone dying in a premeditated way like that. Lots of other factors I won't mention - both because other people are covering them better, and also because I don't want to get into a debate over all that. I don't want to get sidetracked and just talk about the same things all over again.

Because there's a little fact I can't get out of my mind. Actually, three little facts.

  1. Troy Davis was born in October 1968.
  2. Mark MacPhail, the off-duty policeman Mr. Davis was convicted of murdering, was shot in 1989.
  3. Davis was himself killed in 2011.


Those dates stuck in my mind, because 1989 is a long time ago. I had just turned seven; now I'm nearing thirty. (Damn, but that seems old, somehow!) I keep thinking of the me who exists today and the me who existed in 1989 - the world was so different. Reagan was out of the White House but just barely. There were still two towers standing in lower Manhattan, and though America would soon go to war in the Gulf, it would be under a different President Bush and Al-Qaeda would have nothing to do with it. Oh, and I had lost my tonsils the previous spring and thought Ramona Quimby was the bee's knees.

I was, to put it plainly, a different person. Radically so.

Of course kids grow up and change more quickly than adults, so I started thinking about who I was when I was twenty-one, the age Davis was when he allegedly killed MacPhail. That was the spring I did a study abroad in England. I broke my toe and got taken care of by NHS. I mastered the National Express line and saw Edinburgh on my own, and met a fannish friend for a day in London. I saw Peter Jackson completely massacre Denethor's character, and Alfonso Cuaron plucked the HP franchise from Hollywood doldrums to change it into a series worth following. And then there was Eragon, and really, the less said about that the better. I had my world blown apart by grief and spent the rest of the decade starting to pull myself out of it. And I acquired first a B.S. and then an M.A. and got into my current doctoral program. I found out that I could teach and that I could blog and write and a bunch of other stuff, and that I still thought Ramona Quimby totally rocked.

But aside from the Ramona Quimby bit, I am a very different person than I was at twenty-one. I did things I regret, which I won't go into here, but if you asked me now whether I felt responsible for them... I honestly don't know. In a certain sense, yes. I feel bad that they happened, and bad in a different way than if someone else had done them. They were my mistakes. At the same time, though, I am not that person and given the choice I would act differently. Not because of regrets, but because I'm a different person. My values have changed, I've grown up.

That's after about nine years; Davis has had twenty-two years to grow beyond his former self. I'm sure that sentences vary from area to area, but if Law & Order can be trusted, twenty-five to life is the standard term for premeditated murder. Davis is very nearly to the point where we would say it was time to put him in front of a parole board to see if he had been "rehabilitated." For many people at least, twenty-five years is how long it takes to be transformed from murderer to productive citizen. Agree with that thought or not, it's built into the legal system that we expect at least some people will be radically changed in this length of time.

And this is the point at which we killed him. That boggles the mind, or at least my mind.

Before the execution there was a trend on FB, with people posting "I am Troy Davis." I said I couldn't do that in good faith, not because I didn't care but because I did not want to coopt his experience. I have not been through a trial and everything since. I cannot claim that particular hell. But I feel for him, and for MacPhail's family and the prison guards who shoved poison into him. All of that got me thinking, though, about the nature of identity. Hence this post's title: is Troy Davis still Troy Davis? Really? The same Troy Davis who beat up that homeless man and allegedly shot that security guard?

See, next week I'll be teaching my students about various theories of identity. Philosophers look at what it is that makes you the same person - the same set of memories, or the same soul, or the same clump of cells, or what exactly. I was preparing my lecture notes for that, and I couldn't help thinking how none of those definitions really made him the same person, and I think with good reason. So does it makes sense to punish us for what our self of two decades prior did? Even if there wasn't any doubt (which there is in this case, but never mind)? Would I kill someone for it, after so much had changed? Again, I honestly don't know.

But it gives me pause, as I think it should all of us. I got the impression that Davis's execution was further removed from his conviction than it is for a lot of death-row inmates, but still - a decade seems within the ballpark for most, and so much can change in that length of time. I can't help wondering whether we ever really execute the same person who did the crime.

This entry was originally posted at http://fidesquaerens.dreamwidth.org/7619.html. Please comment there using OpenID.

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