The thing about reality: people can’t bear too much of it


Andrew O'Hagan on tweeting at an execution @ London Review of Books.

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.

Image: Tasha Ong @ F-Stop Magazine

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