When the Death Penalty Hits Home

As the Troy Davis case takes over the news, one writer can't help thinking of her cousin on death row.


I remember Tony first as one of the big kids with a Jheri curl. On holidays, when everyone under the age of 18 holed up in the den and “gimme the controller” mayhem ensued, he was the chubby, quiet one. The one who smiled a lot.

I remember Tony second as a superhero. He’d gone away somewhere (my mother said a summer camp) and had come back with muscles the size of my head. He’d grown up and grown even more inward. When I told my cousin Donna, another one of the big kids, that it must have been a fat camp Tony went to, she laughed.

“No, Lena. It wasn’t like a camp camp.” He’d been in a juvenile-rehabilitation camp.

From there, my memories of Tony are sparse. His image is recognizable in the first few pages of family albums. Keep flipping though and it disappears. Favoring the temporarily fulfilling life of the streets to life in our family album, Tony has been in and out of prison his entire adult life.

In 1995 he was sentenced to death for a murder committed in Los Angeles in 1991, the same year Troy Davis — whose name has become a rallying cry for death-penalty foes — was convicted of murdering off-duty police officer Mark MacPhail in Georgia.

Just as I had to do to discover the impossible twists and turns of Davis’ case, I had to Google the details of Tony’s conviction and sentencing — they aren’t considered acceptable topics at college graduations, weddings and baby showers. I do know that he has never claimed to be innocent of participating in what he described in a letter as “dastardly, thug, criminal and sin-filled” gang activity. Whether he committed the crime he was convicted of, I do not know.

In California, 13 prisoners have been executed since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty. A prisoner sentenced to death, of which there are currently more than 700, may choose between gas or lethal injection. The state’s governor has the sole authority to grant clemency.

Don Heller, the author of the 1978 initiative that formally and at the state level reinstated California’s death penalty after years of back-and-forth on the issue, is now an advocate for life without parole.