Social Media and its Impact on High-Profile Death Penalty Cases - Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal
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Social Media and its Impact on High-Profile Death Penalty Cases

Social Media and its Impact on High-Profile Death Penalty Cases

Days before his execution, Troy Davis’s guilt is questioned.

In this era, it is impossible to oversee the overwhelming support generated by social media and the far-reaching impact of open media.

Troy Davis’s execution date is this Wednesday, September 21st, at 7 p.m.  He is set to be executed at a prison in Jackson, Georgia, just south of Atlanta.  Today, Davis, an African American man, is 42 years old.  Twenty years ago, in 1991, he was convicted of murdering Mark MacPhail, a white, off-duty Savannah police officer.  Davis has always maintained his innocence.  Since the original trial, 7 out of the 9 prosecution witnesses that linked Davis to the shooting have either recanted or changed their stories. His sister, Martina Correia, has made it her life’s mission to exonerate her brother.

So what about this case is unique? It has garnered national, and even international attention, thanks in large part to the Internet and social media.  There have been online petition requests, political and liberal Web sites taking up the issue, and chatter on Twitter, all directed towards stopping Davis’s impending execution.  What is the effect of all of this online buzz?  Global protests have been mounted in support of Davis, his sister has enlisted the help of Amnesty International and has traveled to Ireland to receive a human rights award. If you visit, you can find Davis’s address at the Georgia Department of Corrections to send him a personal money order.  The popular opinion seems to indicate that Davis has been wrongly accused.

The proliferation of access to the Internet and social media sites means that every day people, all around the world, can learn about Davis’s story and become personal crusaders for his exoneration.  Imagine if this was the case years ago, when some now famous names in American history were also facing the death penalty.  Would Ethel and Julius Rosenberg have been executed in 1953 during the heart of the McCarthy era or would ordinary American citizens have taken up their cause if it were plastered across the Internet on webpages, on Facebook, and on Twitter?  Or was the stigma against the Rosenberg’s at the time too great to overcome even by the mobilization of social media?  Of course, nobody can answer this question today and we are only left to speculate the “what–if’s.”  However, this hypothetical line-of-thinking is useful in considering how the social media impacted high profile death penalty cases.

There is no doubt that the story here, like that of the Rosenberg’s, is a gripping one.  Davis’s story is that of a young black man in the American South who was convicted of killing a white police officer.  It is not hard to see why people would be drawn to Davis’s story.  But is there a risk that because of the nature of Davis’s story (the fact that it is so compelling and emotional, and fraught with racial tensions), combined with the fact that people have more access now than ever to learn about this story, that people are enlisting in the cause without really investigating the facts of the case?

“Imagine if this was the case years ago, when some now famous names in American history were also facing the death penalty.”

It is not hard to imagine that law enforcement officials in the criminal justice system, and specifically the parole board overseeing Davis’s case, might be critical and/or skeptical of the massive public outcry on behalf of Davis.  Have the majority of the people who have signed petitions and posted Tweets actually researched the facts of Davis’s case?  Or have people all around the country and the world taken up Davis’s cause as crusaders for a larger issue?  Perhaps one can make the argument that Davis has become the symbol of something larger, even beyond the specific facts of his case.  He can be seen to represent another example of the disproportionately high number of young American black men who are incarcerated in this country.  His story also showcases the growing moral and ethical opposition to the use of the death penalty as punishment.

As the final countdown to Davis’s execution has already begun, we are left with these looming questions.   Ultimately, we will have to wait and see if and how the parole board in this case chooses to react to the countless number of webpages, online petitions, and tweets that have all been dedicated to Davis’s exoneration.

9/20 Update: Troy Davis Denied Clemency, Execution Tomorrow.

9/21 Update: Davis is Executed in Georgia.

Hannah Furst

Hannah Furst is a 2L at Fordham Law. She currently resides on the upper, upper west side and enjoys cooking and hip hop dancing.