How a death-row inmate changed the life of an
Alpharetta teen. A book excerpt by Gautam Narula.
In 2008, Gautam Narula is a 15-year-old sophomore at Alpharetta High School. An ace chess player living a sheltered life in the affluent northern suburbs, he has never been exposed to poverty and has a deep faith in the efficacy of our justice system.
In 2008, Troy Anthony Davis is an inmate on Georgia’s death row. He’s been there since 1991, when he was convicted of murdering a police officer.
A phone call on Sept. 3, 2008, would bring these two people together. What follows is an excerpt from “Remain Free,” a memoir by Gautam (pronounced Gotham) about their experience.
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Life in Alpharetta was best described in the form of routines. I’d wake up for school each morning then groggily eat chocolate chip waffles. I would brush my teeth, make a faint attempt to tame the swathes of hair that had rebelled during my sleep, throw on a shirt and jeans and walk down the hill to the bus stop. I was a good, if somewhat apathetic, student. I focused on reading and philosophical lunch discussions. I goofed off with friends and devoted any spare time to my competitive chess career.
After school ended, my mother picked me up and took me back to her apartment, as she did every weekday. She would lay dishes of rice, legumes and potatoes on the table, and I would sit alone and gorge on a mountain of food while she returned to work on the computer. I then crawled to my mother’s sagging mattress to stupefy my mind with television, stirring only to flip channels during commercials.
My father would pick up my sister Pranavi, 13, and me at night and drive us back to our house, where I surfed the internet for a few hours before going to sleep. I spent weekends at chess tournaments and occasionally hanging out with friends. Sometimes I was alone in our messy, deteriorating house, which seemed so much larger and emptier after my mother moved out.
The phone call
“Hey, it’s Sahil. Do you have a second to talk?” Sahil was a childhood friend a few years older than me. While his parents and my mother had been friends for decades, he’d never called before. He lived too far away to see regularly, and we’d drifted apart over the years. I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d seen him.
“Sure,” I said. “What’s up?”
“Have you heard of Troy Davis?”
“He’s an inmate on Georgia’s death row, convicted of killing a cop in Savannah. There’s a lot of evidence that he’s innocent. I’ve been working on the case at Amnesty International. He’ll be executed in a couple of weeks, so I’ve been calling everyone I know to get them involved before it’s too late.”
I handed the phone to my mother and drifted away from the call. Plenty of death row inmates preached their innocence to all who’d listen. Surely, after decades of appeals, the man’s innocence would have come to light. If he could lose in court time and time again, he must have been guilty. Far more likely that Troy Davis was lying than to have a faulty trial and faulty appeals. I shrugged it off and retreated to the bedroom and the television.
But the topic resurfaced on the ride home from school a few days later.
“Remember what Sahil was saying, about Troy Davis?” my mother asked. The car remained motionless in Alpharetta’s rush-hour traffic. Her voice was somber, carrying a heavy weight. “I’ve been researching the case online. There are serious problems. Sahil was right.”
A Google search revealed Troy Davis was a black man convicted in 1991 of the 1989 murder of a white Savannah police officer, Mark MacPhail. His conviction rested primarily on nine eyewitness testimonies. Seven of those nine had recanted or altered their testimony, citing police coercion and intimidation. There was no physical evidence, no gun and no DNA. It all sounded convincing on the surface.
But if the evidence was as strong as Davis supporters claimed, why hadn’t the courts ordered a new trial? The claims Davis made of mistaken identity, shoddy evidence, witness tampering, a rushed and sub-par investigation and a systematic denial of appeals on technicalities implied a legal system so brazenly unjust that they had to be false. Even Georgia, with its troubled history of segregation, lynchings and race riots, couldn’t be so perverse. Not in 2008.
As I read through articles, one fact stood out: Georgia set the execution for Sept. 23, 2008, but the Supreme Court was reportedly due to examine the case on Sept. 29. The state had intentionally set an execution date days before the highest court in the country was to review the case. Troy Davis had been on death row for nearly two decades. What difference would a few more weeks make?
These questions brewed in my mind at school the next day. If the Supreme Court was going to review the case just six days later, if Troy Davis had already been on death row for 17 years, if Georgia was so confident the evidence against Troy Davis was ironclad enough to kill him, why couldn’t they wait?
Could he really be innocent? And could that really happen here, in America?
Change of heart
I was 9 years old when I first learned of the death penalty. I spent much of my time in the school library reading fantasy books. I would teleport myself from Alpharetta to lands of magic, superheroes and talking animals. While looking for new stories, my fingers brushed a series of slim hardcover books neatly arranged on a shelf. I pulled one of the volumes from the collection: “Gangs and Your Neighborhood,” by Stanley “Tookie” Williams. On the cover, next to the author name, it read: “Co-founder of the Crips, now on Death Row in San Quentin State Prison.”
“Papa,” I asked when my father got home from work, “what’s death row?”
My father’s voice hardened. “Where did you hear about that?”
“There was a book in the school library written by a man on death row.”
He took a second to think before answering. “Death row is a prison for very bad people. The government kills them for the crimes they committed.”
“What crimes did they commit?”
“Only the most heinous crimes. And they deserve to die, especially the ones who do things to young children.”
It seemed a logical position, so it was the one I adopted. When Tookie Williams was executed in 2006, I gave it no more than a passing thought.
Now I was questioning that stance.
My mother began writing emails and making phone calls, hoping to get in contact with Troy or his family. On Sept. 18, five days before his scheduled execution, I signed Amnesty International’s petition and shared it on Facebook, but that felt inadequate.
At school, Troy Davis became my new conversation starter. A few friends came on board, but the key element to convince others — time — was in short supply. As the execution drew closer with no sign of anything to stop it, I grew desperate and wrote a panicked, typo-laden email to the White House.
I never received a response.
Troy Davis’s execution wouldn’t cause me any pain. My life would go on more or less unchanged. But the idea that a potentially innocent man could be executed in 21st century America made me nervous. It frightened me. If Troy Davis was executed innocent, one day I could be executed for a crime I never committed.
The day of his scheduled execution, even watching TV couldn’t calm my nerves, so I lay on the sofa, hands intertwined, counting the minutes. Ninety minutes until execution. Eighty minutes. Seventy. Sixty.
I dozed off until my father’s voice bellowed through the house.
“Gautam, did you see the news? The Supreme Court stayed the execution!”
I held my breath. “Stayed?”
“Yes,” he said. “It’s been stayed until the Supreme Court reviews his appeal.”
Troy Davis wasn’t dead. Not today.
But what now?
I was no longer gliding along, day by day. I’d been full of purpose the past few weeks, driven — like I had something to fight for. I got off the sofa and fired up my computer. I was going to write Troy Davis.
Dear Mr. Troy Davis,
When I was 10, I made the decision to become atheist. For 1/3 of my life, I had denied the existence of God. But when I heard about your case, I, for the first time in five years, and perhaps even for the first time in my life, truly prayed for you. I thought science had rendered God obsolete, that science was the true path to knowledge. I thought that any God would not allow the poverty and earthquakes and exploitation and tsunamis and pain in the world. I was 10 years old and I had already become cynical about the world.
But was it science that called the Supreme Court to convene an emergency session? Was it science that made the judges decide, less than two hours before your execution, to grant you a stay of execution? I don’t know what I believe now, but I do know that I cannot confidently or honestly deny the existence of God.
With love and most sincerely yours,
Gautam R. Narula
After receiving Gautam’s letter, Davis asked his sister, Martina Correia, to invite Gautam for a visit. A few days later, Gautam’s mother picked him up from school early and they drove to the prison in Jackson.
A dozen visitors were already there: Asians, whites, blacks, a writer, a professor, a filmmaker, a student, a former military member, a man from Washington and a woman from Texas. They all hugged each other even though they’d never met.
Troy didn’t look much like the photo all over the internet — that photo showed a man wearing large glasses and clad in a white jumpsuit against a concrete wall. The man looked straight into the camera, but his face was expressionless. I could see no anger in his eyes, nor sadness, just ... disappointment. A deep, unshakable disappointment.
That wasn’t the man seated in front of me. There were no glasses, his mouth was drawn into an infectious grin, he smelled of clean linen, and his eyes weren’t sorrowful. They were glowing.
“Wow, he’s tall!” His voice was a deep, soothing bass inflected with a Savannah drawl. “Gautam, I saved you a seat.”
He motioned for me to sit next to him.
“I read your letter, Gautam. I have it taped to the wall in my cell. I was very moved by what you wrote.”
I smiled but didn’t say anything. The others continued talking while I sat in silence and listened. I’d expected a somber meeting, but everyone, especially Troy, was smiling and laughing.
“Don’t you ever feel angry or frustrated for being on death row for something you didn’t do?” someone asked.
“God hasn’t failed me. He just isn’t ready for me to come home yet,” Troy said.
“Martina told me you spend a lot of time in your cell reading the Bible,” my mother said.
“I experimented with many religions, but it was Christianity that really stuck with me. I’m not perfect, but my faith in God has helped me tremendously. I have no hatred. I do not hate the MacPhail family. I do not hate the Georgia justice system. I pray for all of them.”
The others nodded in approval while Troy looked over at me. “You haven’t talked much, Gautam. I was a quiet kid like you, although I couldn’t write the way you can.” He chuckled. “I imagine we have quite different views on God.”
I finally found the nerve to speak. “If God exists, why is there so much evil in the world?”
“Ah, the problem of evil. Imagine that a child throws rocks at his neighbor’s windows and breaks them. If his parents pay to repair the window, what do you think will happen? The child will keep throwing rocks at the window and never learn his lesson. The parents would be better off not paying for the window and letting the child suffer the consequences for his actions. Not because they don’t love him, but because they want him to be a better person. God granted us free will, and many humans use that free will to sin. If God immediately fixed everything, we wouldn’t learn our lesson. So like the parents in that example, God is letting us live with the consequences of our actions. Not because He doesn’t love us, but because He wants us to be good from our own hearts.”
The conversation took many different turns after that. At one point, Davis spoke about his former fiancée.
“When I got locked up, she would visit me. She always believed I was innocent and said she would wait until I was free. Then we could create the life we planned, the life we dreamed about. But I couldn’t do that to her. I couldn’t make her wait for me. I had to give her the opportunity to live her own life the way she wanted it. I knew our life together would never be. She eventually got married and had kids.”
Troy paused, and I looked away. I didn’t want him to see the tear rolling down my cheek.
A bond forged
Between 2008 to 2011, two execution dates were set followed by stays of execution. Davis’ case sparked protests around the world. Global figures, including Pope Benedict XVI and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, urged his execution be halted. During that time Gautam visited Davis as often and as long as the prison permitted, every three months for six hours. They also exchanged more than 50 letters and spoke on the phone often. Within a few months of meeting, Davis started calling Gautam his adopted nephew; Gautam called Davis his uncle.
Troy’s fourth execution date was announced for Sept. 21, 2011. Gautam, who recorded their phone calls, had just turned 18.
Troy: “I’m frustrated. No matter what I try to do, people in power are just so corrupt that they will continue to hide the truth and sacrifice an innocent person. They don’t care if I can prove innocence, because if my attorneys didn’t exercise due diligence I can be executed. The courts and the past parole board hearings didn’t deny me because they didn’t believe the witnesses, they denied me because it would question the tactics the police used...”
Gautam: “The greatest lesson I’ve learned from all this is to not trust the legal system. In school they always taught us our legal system was the greatest and fairest in the world, but if you’re rich, if you’re powerful, it works in your favor.
Troy: “Initially, everyone starts off wanting positive change and to stop crime. When you see criminals that go in and come right back out, DAs and police officers get frustrated that the system keeps releasing the people who terrorize society. So they start conjuring evidence and making stuff up, and that’s how they become corrupt. Look at how many people got out of death row because they had DNA to prove their innocence. Eyewitnesses misidentified them in nearly every one of those cases. After the first few, they should’ve changed the system. But nobody wants to rock the boat.
“But enough about me, what’s new in your life besides being so good at chess?”
Gautam: “Pranavi’s been having all this drama with her friends. She’s friends with her boyfriend’s ex and that’s causing problems.”
Automated Voice: You have 60 seconds left on this call.
Troy: “At this age, she should concentrate on her studies. The boys will come. Just try to enjoy life, and tell Pranavi to tell her friend that she can’t force people to love her. She needs to love herself.”
Gautam: “Pranavi revels in this kind of stuff. School barely registers as a priority.”
Troy: “That’s sad because everything you learn today will be useful in the future. Everything. Especially math. You’re gonna use math every day of your life! You and Pranavi need to try your best at everything you do.’
Automated Voice: You have 15 seconds left on this call.
Troy: “All right Gautam. Take care and remember I love y’all. Tell Pranavi I—”
The call disconnected. That was always the worst part, being reminded someone could always take him away.
On Sept. 21, 2011, protesters gather outside the prison before Davis’ scheduled execution at 7 p.m. Gautam is now a student at the University of Georgia, pursuing a double major in computer science and political science.
3:15 p.m.: I make preparations to drive to Jackson after finishing my first college exam. The car gives me trouble. Every time I hit 40, the engine freezes and revs, louder and louder until it catches and the car jerks forward. I take a back road from Athens to Jackson, blindly obeying the commands barked out by my GPS every few minutes.
The car continues to struggle and sputter forward, nearly stalling several times as I make my way down the single lane road.
6 p.m.: I reach Jackson. I’m clad in a sky blue “I Am Troy Davis” shirt as are many other protesters. Ahead I see hundreds of signs: “NAACP says STOP THE EXECUTION.” “I Am Troy Davis.” “Not In My Name.” “Stop the Legal Lynching.”
6:15 p.m.: The crowd is a myriad of voices, talking, laughing, coughing, screaming. As the minutes pass, the protesters become increasingly agitated. They alternate between different chants, which grow more and more feverish as the execution draws nearer.
“I am Troy Davis! We are Troy Davis!”
“No justice, no peace!”
6:30 p.m.: Protesters rhythmically beat drums. I stand silent and peer across the road where the trees obscure the view of the prison, wondering what’s going through Troy’s mind at this moment. Riot police, clad in black armor and helmets and armed with batons and rifles, line up across the road. They stand there stoically, staring into the crowd as a few voices begin to softly sing: “Kumbaya my Lord, kumbaya.”
6:47 p.m.: A group of protesters spills over the police tape. The police rush toward the offending protesters. A few others are arrested and hauled off to the county jail. More riot police are brought in.
6:50 p.m.: The crowd unites as one, chanting, “Too much doubt, let Troy out!” I break my silence and join in.
6:53 p.m.: The drums reach a feverish pitch, louder and faster than before.
6:55 p.m.: The crowd kneels and begins to pray. My mother stands beneath a tree, crying and praying. I stand in silence, gazing toward the setting sun.
6:58 p.m.: A man who looks like Jesus yells, “Two minutes until 7 o’clock! Two minutes!”
7 p.m.: I receive a text message from a friend: “Please don’t tell me they did it.”
Are they injecting his veins with poison right now?
7:02 p.m.: The news breaks. The execution has been stayed. The crowd erupts into cheers. Strangers hug each other. Some collapse onto the ground in tears, raising their arms skyward. Nobody knows what’s happening, but at this point we’re all just grateful that something, anything, is happening.
8 p.m.: Whispers circulate through the crowd. The execution has been stayed for a day while the Supreme Court considers the latest challenge. Troy pulled off his final miracle, just like he promised.
10:20 p.m.: I’m back at the dorm playing a card game called Mafia. The game ends when either all Mafia players are killed or all of the civilians are dead. Fate grants me a Mafia card, and as I kill people one by one, I successfully convince other players to kill the other civilians until I successfully murder everyone in the town.
I hear a buzzing and feel my pocket vibrate — a text from my friend, John.
“Gautam, I’m so sorry.”
10:21 p.m.: The Supreme Court never issued a one-day stay, only a temporary reprieve while they considered the appeal, which was denied.
10:44 p.m.: I turn on CNN and sit in silence as Anderson Cooper announces that the execution of Troy Davis has begun.
11:14 p.m.: On TV, a representative of the Georgia Department of Corrections reads from a statement as dozens of reporters crowd her: “The court-ordered execution of Troy Anthony Davis has been carried out. The time of death is 11:08 p.m.”
The following day Gautam received a letter from Davis dated Sept. 18, 2011
How’s my nephew holding up these days? I heard you and Pranavi were at the rally Friday evening. I’m glad to know you were able to make it. Give everyone my love for me.
You already know I’m proud of you but stay focused on the direction you want your life to go. Every decision today directs your tomorrow. I want you to enjoy your youth, but don’t forget to consistently tell those you love what they mean to you.
Are you able to enjoy school with everything you have going on? I’ve heard the first year is the most stressful with all the adjustments you have to make. You’ve always given your best at everything so I’m looking forward to hearing about your first quarter grades ... Remember that in life we don’t always get what we want but even when faced with the worst of times, God will open a window of hope and a door to prosperity.
God Bless You!
Troy A. Davis
I stare at the letter and read it over one more time. I sit motionless with my eyes closed, feeling my heart ceaselessly beating. I open my eyes and for the first time in years, tears flow down my cheeks as it finally hits me that they really killed my friend, my uncle.
Troy Davis is dead.
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Sometimes I still dream about Troy. In one dream, he smiles and points to his chest, where his heart is, but says nothing. I don’t know what to say so I just stand there, watching him. Before the scene fades out, he looks at me. “Do you know what I miss?” he asks. “I miss looking at the stars.”
ABOUT THE STORY
Before festivities for the Georgia Author of the Year Awards ceremony began last month, many of the contenders for Best Memoir were already conceding defeat because Jimmy Carter’s book, “A Full Life,” was a nominee. So imagine everyone’s surprise when the former president of the United States lost out to 22-year-old Gautam Narula for his self-published book “Remain Free” about his relationship with former death row inmate Troy Davis, who was executed in 2011. I later invited Gautam to lunch and was thoroughly impressed by his compassion and intelligence. I knew his story would make a great Personal Journey. Special thanks goes to AJC staff writer Helena Oliviero for helping craft this excerpt.
Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gautam Narula is a freelance software developer and chess instructor currently seeking a job in software engineering. After the execution of Troy Davis, Gautam launched a Kickstarter campaign that raised about $11,000 to fund the cost of publishing his memoir. The book, which debuted in September 2015, won a Georgia Author of the Year Award for Best Memoir. All proceeds from the book go to the Innocence Project, a non-profit organization committed to exonerating wrongly convicted people through the use of DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system. Gautam hopes to someday develop software that will prevent wrongful convictions. He believes Troy Davis will someday be exonerated.
READ MORE ON THE TROY DAVIS CASE: