Less than six months ago, I blogged about citizen reporters using Flickr and other social media sites as fora to organize and rally amidst unrest in the Middle East.  Here in the United States, we find another example of social media being used as an increasingly powerful and common activist tool: this time, with regard to a death row inmate, Troy Davis.  In 1991, Troy Anthony Davis, a black man, was convicted of murdering a white, off-duty police officer named Mark Allen MacPhail in 1989.  Davis’ guilt has been called into question ever since; seven of the nine people who testified against him have since changed their story, a murder weapon was never found, and racial bias has been suspected.  The case was even subject to a rare Supreme Court-ordered innocence hearing, at which four of the original witnesses testified that Davis was in fact not the killer.

Davis’ case attracted particular attention among high-profile individuals and (perhaps as a partial result) the general public.  Then, multiple Twitter accounts, such as “FreeTroyDavis,” “1million4troy,” and “freetroynow,” as well hashtags like #TroyDavis and #TooMuchDoubt, found thousands of followers.  Many people also signed online petitions.  Moreover, amidst Davis’ last clemency hearing in front of the Georgia parole board on Monday, President Jimmy Carter and entertainment star Cee Lo Green (not to mention 51 members of Congress) spoke out against Davis’ execution.

This case exemplifies again that social media and celebrity attention can stir and organize public action in a legal context (here, in the context of a contentious criminal trial).  Yet, it is unclear how much the internet-facilitated public attention really matters.  After all, despite the furor, the Georgia parole board upheld Davis’ September 21st execution. And, in the end, Davis was executed on Wednesday night, Cee Lo Green’s support notwithstanding.

On the other hand, the Supreme Court did delay the execution, granting a rare and dramatic temporary reprieve (delivered at the hour he was sentenced to be executed) so it could consider the decision.  Perhaps the public outcry has had something to do with the Supreme Court’s last-minute look.  Moreover, taking the longer view, perhaps the widespread attention that social media facilitates will bring about legal reform (as, for example, in death penalty cases) more quickly than would otherwise be possible.  The outcry is certainly persistent; Facebook posts like “RIP Troy Davis” already overwhelm my news feed.

Only time will tell how social media’s role in the legal system will develop. But time ran out for Troy Davis, no matter what the tweets said.

– Andrea Verney

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4 Responses to Social Media’s Continuing Role in Controversial Legal Issues: Twitter Brings Extra Attention in Death Penalty Case

  1. JL says:

    Ryan: As I was reading the initial blog post, I was also wondering about the psychological impact that the delayed execution may have had on Mr. Davis. I think you’re right: the delay likely raised Mr. Davis’ hopes of exoneration and may have ultimately increased his suffering. While I commend social media’s ability to engage the public in current events, I think it is important to scrutinize the accuracy and thoroughness of the information promulgated by the media. As R.L. pointed out, this information can be false, misleading, and unsubstantiated; when a great deal of “public outcry” is generated in response to insufficient media presentation, I believe that the outcry should be taken with a proverbial grain of salt. Therefore, if social media-fueled public outcry did have something to do with the Supreme Court’s decision to delay Mr. Davis’ execution, I hope (for the sake of future inmate psyche) that the Supreme Court does not repeat this type of “dramatic temporary reprieve.”

  2. Ryan Sawyer says:

    Although social media can be powerful, the timing of public outcry seems to harm rather than help the convicted in capital punishment cases. You wrote,

    “On the other hand, the Supreme Court did delay the execution, granting a rare and dramatic temporary reprieve (delivered at the hour he was sentenced to be executed) so it could consider the decision. Perhaps the public outcry has had something to do with the Supreme Court’s last-minute look.”

    Although the Supreme Court’s temporary reprieve may have raised the hope of Mr. Davis, it ultimately added to his suffering. The repeated postponement of execution amounts to torture for the individual facing capital punishment. I think the use of social media for activism is certainly a meaningful and powerful tool for promoting change, yet the timing of public outcry is often too late. One can imagine a different ending in the case of Mr. Davis if the question of his innocence was spread through the social media at a date farther removed from his scheduled execution. I definitely can’t propose a method of gaining the attention of millions when the cause for concern is not imminent, but if someone does manage to create a movement to spare an allegedly innocent man in the future, it would undoubtedly be better for both the cause and the offender to start at an earlier time. This would hopefully avoid the psychological torture of delaying execution and allow for a more meaningful review of the underlying facts pointing to innocence.

  3. R.L. Florance says:

    This is an interesting way to look at social media’s role in controversial legal issues. Unfortunately, it looks like social media has had a negative impact in this case. After reading about the case and looking through the court documents, I found many misstatements made about Troy Davis’ case. For example, it has been repeatedly stated both through the media and social media that 7 of 9 witnesses against Troy Davis recanted. I don’t know where these numbers came from but after looking through the Southern District of Georgia’s opinion, way more than 9 witnesses testified against Troy Davis. The opinion can be found at: http://www.gasd.uscourts.gov/pdf/409cv00130_92part1.pdf for the first half and http://www.gasd.uscourts.gov/pdf/409cv00130_92part2.pdf for the second half. The judge in the case spent the first 30 pages of the opinion detailing over 20 eye witness accounts of the shooting. I mean the shooting was in a Burger King parking lot. On page 41, the judge says the state actually called 34 witnesses, and he would only discuss the ones cogent for determining the petition. So, I am interested where the media got a hold of the 9 witness number because it is clearly false.

    Second, social media has clearly stretched the meaning of recantation. The judge discusses the recantations from pages 127-149. One of the recantations is not even a recantation and is supported by an unnotarized affidavit by a deceased woman. In addition, Troy Davis’ legal team suspiciously would not let two of the alleged recanters testify at the evidentiary hearing, even though one was sitting outside the courtroom. Overall, it is clear why the Supreme Court unanimously (including Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan) refused to review the judge’s decision that the alleged recantations provided no probative value to the defense.

    It is unfortunate that social media has allowed the rapid dissemination of distorted facts to turn a convicted cop killer into a national hero overnight; however, given the controversial nature of capital punishment, it is not a surprise.

    • Erin Reimer says:

      R.L., I’m so glad that you took the time to research the facts of the court’s findings. Due to the publicity that the case has been getting, I have been wondering how much research the bloggers and tweeters have truly done themselves. While I value the way that social media has truly engaged the public in current events in a way that has rarely been seen before, I share in your disappointment that people are reacting without forming a completely informed viewpoint. As Andrea emphasizes, while I think that social media adds value to our system because it increases accountability, as the government can react to public pressure and enact legal reform as necessary, the points that you so poignantly articulate make me appreciate the isolation from public review with which our system provides the judiciary.