Thinkstock

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.

Advertisement

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.

Advertisement

Troy Davis' (imminent) death seems to be reversing a lot of decisions, except for the one that sealed his fate so long ago. Several witnesses have come forward to say that they were coerced into naming Davis as the shooter. According to Amnesty International, "The case against [Davis] consisted entirely of witness testimony which contained inconsistencies even at the time of the trial."

E.D. Kain wrote in Forbes: "In the end, I am not concerned so much with whether or not Davis is guilty or innocent. I am concerned with the uncertainty of his guilt … If we have even a glimmer of doubt about his guilt, there will be no justice in his death."

Mark MacPhail's family say they're not out for blood, only justice. I simply don't believe in that type of justice. Justice covered in blood is just as wrong as the crime for which it seeks punishment. Those who disagree with me will no doubt shout, "But what about the victim?!" I say that capital punishment creates victims of us all. An eye for an eye just makes everybody blind.

Advertisement

In the last 20 years, I've gotten maybe five letters from Tony, always written in sharp, daggerlike scrawl across each page in impossibly neat diagonal lines. I've written back maybe once or twice. Most years it's easy to forget that my cousin, someone I used to know, is on death row. That during the entirety of my adult life, Tony's been waiting to die. I'm out here living, as is the rest of the free world.

In a letter recently released online, Davis, a man many now believe is innocent, spoke for himself and called for a global dismantling of the death penalty. "I can't wait to stand with you, no matter if that is in physical or spiritual form, I will one day be announcing, 'I AM TROY DAVIS, and I AM FREE!' "

Helena Andrews is a regular contributor to The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter. 

Advertisement

Helena Andrews is a contributing editor at The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter.