But since receiving that honor in February of 2011, the teen, who goes by “De’Jaun,” lost his grandmother, his uncle was executed and his mother died of cancer.
De’Jaun, 17, of Savannah, Ga., was born into the debate about capital punishment. His uncle, Troy Davis, was already on death row for the August 1989 murder of police officer Mark MacPhail.
Davis was executed on Sept. 21, 2011, after a last-minute appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court failed. He maintained his innocence until the end, in a case that drew widespread media attention.
Less than three months later, Martina Correia, who was the face of the effort to free her brother, died of cancer.
“When she died in the hospital, I wasn’t sad at all,” De’Jaun told The Root. “She was calm. She didn’t have anything else to worry about. She was up there with my uncle and grandmother.”
As a kid, De’Jaun watched his mother, a volunteer with Amnesty International, speak about her brother’s case around the world. De’Jaun joined her crusade, giving his first speech when he was in the seventh grade.
As the execution neared, he spoke to audiences in cities such as Kansas City, Mo.; New York; Washington, D.C.; and even London about his uncle’s case and what he perceives to be an unfair criminal-justice system.