I want to tell you a story. It isn’t about Troy Davis, but it is about Troy Davis. It is about murder, loss, vengeance, and victims. It is about how our justice system treats defendants of color and about how our justice system does not necessarily deliver justice. It is my plea to you as a family member of a murder victim not to become what you loathe.
On May 29, 1971, Charles Hayes got up, got dressed, brushed his teeth and kissed his wife goodbye. It was their 40th wedding anniversary that day, but he had a full day of work as a Southern Pacific railroad clerk in South Central LA to put in before they could celebrate that night.
At 5:45 that evening, my grandmother called, hysterical. My grandfather, Charles Hayes, had not returned from work at 5:00 as he had every Saturday for 40 years. Something was wrong. I was 12 years old at the time. I handed the phone off to my parents, who suggested calling the police. You had to understand this about Charles — he was as reliable as the sunrise and sunset. He was a creature of habit, of routine. The only reason he would possibly have not been home on their 40th wedding anniversary was because something had happened, though we fiercely hoped it hadn’t.
I was the only one of us to remember the license plate of his car. I remember it like it happened yesterday. The police were skeptical that a twerp kid would have a clue as to the license, but I still remember it. 204KAH. A brown Chevy Impala, the car he always wanted. Enough room for passengers, but lots of muscle, too.
On June 1, 1971, the car was found several blocks away from where he worked, and so was he, or at least his body. Shot twice through the neck on one side and then the other, life drained away in the spare tire well of the trunk of his car.
The world stopped for awhile. Nothing seemed especially right, but we spent a long time pretending it was anyway. We still moved through the days, pretended like it wasn’t really as awful as it was and tried to manage my grandmother, who quite nearly lost her mind over it. There were days where I hated that unknown person who had taken a gun and put it point-blank to my grandfather’s neck. The same man who had shown me how to hit a baseball and mow a lawn. The same man who could dance his way across a floor like he was still 20 and who had such a gentle laugh you had to lean in to hear it.
They did arrest a man. They arrested him while he was in the process of kidnaping a woman and shooting her boyfriend. Ultimately they pinned three murders on him. The judge in the case railed against the jury for sentencing him to life in prison instead of the death penalty in January, 1972. The LA Times article I found 20 years later said the judge called his case “one of the most brutal, one of the most vicious cases ever to come to [his] attention. If ever there was a reason to justify capital punishment, this is the one.”
Perhaps that judge was right, but the same jury who had convicted Hendrix of three premeditated, cold-blooded murders felt otherwise. There was something there, some reason which I will not ever know, that caused them to choose life over death.
Over time, we got on with life, graduated from high school, went to college, had careers, but I was always haunted by the question of why. Detectives assured my parents that John Philip Hendrix was, indeed, the man who pulled that trigger twice. Case closed. Closure. If you think closure means accepting something without evidence, then yes. I suppose it was closure. Except it wasn’t.
20 years later, I did my best to track down the police records on the case, only to discover they had been destroyed. I went to the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office and begged them to pull the court records. Internet friends reached out to their contacts there, too, but as it turns out, the files were destroyed — court, police and evidence records. All gone. Since there was no direct linkage on the record from Hendrix to Hayes, my grandfather’s case was closed but not solved. Closed for them, but not for me. Not by a long shot. How could it be closed on the word of police who weren’t even part of the investigation or trial?
Here is what remained: Nothing. No direct physical evidence. The little information I was able to get confirmed this much: No match between the gun and the wounds. No fingerprints. Nothing that said Hendrix pulled that trigger. Nothing. No relationship between his victims whatsoever, either physical or otherwise. Different locations, different cities, different ages, different ethnicities. Nothing in common. Zero.
Here’s what Hendrix had that led the police to believe he was the shooter: He was black, he was arrested while committing a violent crime, and he had petty crimes in his background. He was 35 at the time of these crimes, but had no adult record prior to picking up a gun in May, 1971 and offing 3 people (according to police). This is their argument, and they seemed to have at least enough evidence to prove to a jury that Hendrix did kill three people, just not that he killed three others who were lumped together as victims by the police despite having even one common tie.
I don’t believe them. I don’t have enough evidence to believe them. I don’t have enough evidence to believe that this man, who had not committed any crimes since he was a juvenile, who was employed, got up one morning and decided to start shooting people, execution-style, for wallets with a five-dollar bill in them, if that. I don’t have enough evidence to logically connect unconnected crimes to the one that changed me in ways I’m still learning to understand.
John Philip Hendrix has evidently died a natural death in prison sometime between when I first looked into the details of this case back in the early 90s and now. He is erased from the California prison rolls as clearly as if he never existed. Were it not for those who remain with a memory, he would just be another dead prisoner. He might as well have not existed. This is good.
But he did. He did exist, he served his life out in Vacaville and died. No one put a gun to his head. No one suffocated him. No one made the decision that they had authority over when he should die. He just died. Naturally, in his time, and the people of this state were spared the burden of murdering someone they condemned for murder.
If I have these doubts, these deep doubts that I was told the truth, that the police told me everything, that the police even tried to find out who might have done this, that the police even tried to get physical evidence, then the very last thing on earth I would want is to know I lived in the state that strapped him to a table and suffocated him with lethal gas.
I would be the murderer I loathe. I would be the person who decided I had the right to rob another human of their life.
There is no “good murder”. There is only murder.
There is no “justified murder”. There is only murder.
And if the state of Georgia allows an agent of the state to pick up a vial of poison, put it in a syringe and inject it into Troy Davis on September 21st, the people of that state will become what we loathe. Murderers.
They will have murdered someone as sure as if they’d put a gun to his neck and shot him, through and through.
They will have robbed the family of that slain officer to ever learn the truth instead of the story they were told.
They will have the same blood on their hands as the person who did murder him.
We, the family members of beloveds lost because someone decided their lives were worthless, will be victims yet again.
Executing Troy Davis is not justice. It is murder.
The way back rests in clemency, in admitting mistakes. Will Georgia listen? To those readers who made it this far, thank you for listening. And sharing.
[Note: The Amnesty International petition for Troy Davis is here. Please sign it, and share it with as many as you can. It matters, not only to Troy Davis but to all of us, who should not cheer the death of a likely-innocent man.]
crossposted to Crooks and Liars
- hold the moon between your branches