“I only write if I get really bothered by something and I wouldn’t let it go. Writing a play is a way for me to write my way through whatever is bothering me.” –Lee Nowell
Troy Anthony Davis was executed on September 21, 2011 after a lifelong battle trying to prove his innocence. Savannah police officer Mark MacPhail was killed on August 19, 1989, and Davis was convicted of murdering him in 1991. From there, more than two decades-worth of appeals followed. Davis insisted that he was innocent and, as the years went on, eye-witnesses who had fingered Davis as the killer recanted their statements.
Was Troy Davis innocent or guilty?
Only him, God, and officer McPhail know the answer to that question, but Lee Nowell’s play Beyond Reasonable Doubt: The Troy Davis Project is less concerned with Davis’ innocence or guilt, and more concerned with the legal system and the processes that led to his execution. In the script, Nowell extrapolates actual evidence from the case (she read all 2,000 pages of trial transcripts) for the audience and allows the court of public opinion to draw its own conclusion. I spoke with Lee a couple of weeks before the play opened at Synchronicity Theatre in Atlanta. Read the full interview here.
After watching the play on opening night, I have to admit that I wasn’t sure whether Davis murdered McPhail. If McPhail wasn’t a police officer, I have a feeling that Davis could have gotten a plea deal for second degree murder or manslaughter, but we prosecute the murders of civil servants differently than other people in this country. It seemed unlikely that he acted alone, but that doesn’t make him innocent. Then there’s the question of whether one bad decision should end a man’s life. I’m ashamed to say that I have never given the death penalty much thought, and I still don’t know how I feel about it. If Davis was guilty, did he deserve to die? Maybe? I still don’t have a definite answer, but I am happy to see a contemporary woman playwright make room on the stage to tackle this tough moral issue (the last one I can think of is Harper Lee). Hopefully, there won’t be another 50 years after Lee Nowell before a woman forces us to ask ourselves, ‘what makes a person innocent or guilty?’