Writers have seldom been strangers at the scene of an execution. As we know from his London Journal, James Boswell would think nothing of tipping up at Tyburn after a bit of the Old Peculiar on Westminster Bridge – horror was an essential part of the 18th century’s entertainment diet. The death vigil was known more recently in Britain: think of Derek Bentley and Ruth Ellis, and those crowds in their charcoal overcoats waiting at the prison gate for the gruesome note to be posted. But today, thanks to Twitter, the vigil-keepers and the writers are one. A last-minute appeal to the Supreme Court, a possible reprieve, the second-by-second wait for the end: all this was dramatised in last week’s judicial murder of the alleged cop-killer Troy Davis in Georgia.
The Twitterati were up all night, arguing, pleading, praying, crying. They included Salman Rushdie, Mia Farrow and Alec Baldwin, as well as millions of people followed only by their sister and their boyfriend, asking what the killing of this 42-year-old man would say to the world about America. Troy Davis had been on death row for 20 years, since being convicted, in 1991, of killing Mark MacPhail, a police officer working as a security guard at a Burger King near Savannah. MacPhail had tried to intervene during an assault in a car park and was shot dead. No gun was ever found, and there was no DNA evidence to tie the murder to Davis, but ballistic evidence suggested a link to a gun he’d used in another crime, and a number of witnesses from the car park pointed to him as having been the man in the white shirt. The fact that seven of these nine witnesses later recanted appeared to have little influence on the final outcome.
Desmond Tutu got involved. So did Pope Benedict. But it was the millions of Twitter users who seemed most powerfully in attendance during Davis’s last hours. They talked to each other and to the world at the same time, finding solace, but also comrades-in-arms. Twitter is marvellous in the way a school playground is marvellous: full of life, full of information, and heaving with bullies. In the hour before the Georgia authorities murdered Davis, the mob were baying for morality, but also for the blood of lethal injection aficionados like Ann Coulter, now known as a ‘politicunt’, which isn’t too harsh for someone who says that ‘there is more credible evidence that space aliens have walked among us than that an innocent person has been executed in this country in the past 60 years.’
Coulter feels that men like Troy Davis should get what’s coming to them, even when ‘what’s coming to them’ turns out to mean being strapped to a gurney waiting for death while lawyers work out just what kind of a fig your life is worth. Davis himself was composed, refused a sedative, and in his final moments proclaimed his innocence and asked the victim’s family to look deeper into the case to find the truth. He asked God to show mercy to the people pressing heart-stopping poison into his veins.
I wonder if he had any notion, as he took his last few hundred breaths, that each one was being counted by millions of people on computers and handsets all over the world. A few hours earlier, Twitter petitions were going viral, heading straight to the Georgia authorities and the Supreme Court. Everybody felt, in the way of modern uprisings, that he couldn’t die in the face of all this outrage. At one moment it looked as if a stay of execution had indeed been granted to represent this community of feeling. ‘Yes!’ ‘No!’ ‘Hold on!’ ‘Judges gathering.’ ‘No certainty,’ went the messages, before the long wait and then the news that Davis was dead. Not only murdered, but tortured first by having had to wait that long for his end. Even the reporters, who tweet their stories 140 characters at a time and get caught in the drama of their readers’ responses, were distraught watching this unfold. That is how news happens now: there is no delay between the event and its reception, between the deed, the word, and the spreading of the word. The word that’s being spread, however, isn’t one that Coulter would want to hear. The case, and the manner in which it was experienced and broadcast in ‘real time’, is turning out to be the biggest fillip the anti-capital punishment lobby in America has had in years. That’s the thing about reality: people can’t bear too much of it.
Writing is one of the issues here. And as I scrolled the night away through the moving and admirable and loony tweets, I remembered older American ways of recording death in such habitats. Truman Capote drank whisky and cried all the way on the plane from Kansas to New York, having just watched his two friends, the killers Perry and Hickock, being murdered in cold blood by the state. Kenneth Tynan, reviewing the book Capote later wrote, said that for the first time a writer in the front rank had been in a position to campaign against an execution and had failed to do so in order to get his book.
Nowadays, you can have your cake and tweet it. In that sense, the experience is probably more like the one Norman Mailer described in The Executioner’s Song. When they strapped Gary Gilmore to an old office chair set up in an empty canning factory and let him face the firing squad, there was a curtain over the news and the journalists outside, waiting for their press conference, prayed it would come in time for the late news. Lawrence Schiller, the producer and newshound, was inside the canning factory. Gilmore summoned him to the chair. ‘I don’t know what I’m here for,’ Schiller said, and Gilmore smiled: ‘You’re going to help me escape.’
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