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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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