Death was not an abstract issue for Davis. She’d taken part in at least 45 “death watches” a staying with death row inmates during their final hours. She’s known nationally for her tenacity and commitment.
“Murphy is one of my heroes,” said Sister Helen Prejean, whose autobiographical book, “Dead Man Walking,” was turned into a critically acclaimed film. “She embodies what an intelligent woman with faith, spunk and commitment does.”
But even heroes need someone to lean on. As cancer invaded her body, Davis lost 20 pounds. Her hair fell out. She could barely walk. Then something unexpected happened. Davis found life on death row.
“It was a miracle to me,” Davis says today.
A death row inmate would become her minister.
Service with a smile
A steady drizzle fell on a group of homeless men gathering outside a sprawling brick building in Midtown. Three men, wearing green garbage bags as makeshift raincoats, huddled under the building’s back porch. They were waiting for a meal inside.
The building is the place Davis, her husband, the Rev. Ed Loring, and their 16-year-old daughter, Hannah, call home. The Open Door Community is also the place many of Atlanta’s homeless call home.
The nature of her vocation is grim, but Davis is not. With her soothing Southern drawl, she exudes warmth as she chats with those who have come by for a meal. She laughs loud and often. A chorus of greetings follows her as she walks down the hall. “Hey, Murphy!” “Murphy!”
It is not by accident that Davis ministers not only to the homeless and death row prisoners, but also battered women. Christians are commanded to forge relationships with “the least of these” a the prisoner, the homeless, those deemed worthless by society, she said. In 1981, she and Loring co-founded the Open Door Community shelter to heed that call.
And it was Loring who led her to death row activism. The two married in 1975 after meeting in seminary. The U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty the following year. Loring, already a death row activist, took Davis to hear the mothers of death row prisoners.
“What those mamas did for me was to articulate the widening circle of tragedy that’s caused by the death penalty,” she said. “This was a place where I needed to take a personal stand.” Davis visited her first death row prisoner in 1977.
Many people dismiss death row activists as liberal do-gooders. Yet Davis' opposition to the death penalty is more complex. A disproportionate number of poor black men receive the sentence. And the death penalty does nothing to deter crime or remove the anguish of victims' families.
“When we’ve been hurt, revenge is a very natural human emotion,” she said. “But if you don’t at some point move beyond that, you cannot heal.”
Her goal is to try to help prisoners recover something. “Their humanity,” she said. “Their capacity to be human. An important part of being a human being is to take responsibility for your actions and their consequences.”
Death row has many depressing turns, but the death watch is the worst. The suspense of last-minute appeals can run a prisoner and his family ragged. And when the appeal is lost, the prisoner’s last conversation with his family remains awkward. People reminisce and apologize to one another. Even if a prisoner receives a last-minute reprieve, he knows he will have to take the same journey again.
“You die a thousand deaths on death watch,” Davis said.
Her faith protects her from the despair on death row. “If I believed what happens in prison is the last word, I’d be in pretty sad shape.”
Michael Radelet, a Florida death penalty scholar who has participated in at least 100 death watches, said most death row activists believe they have no choice.
“It’s like if you see a car crash,” Radelet said. “The only thing harder than helping the victims of the car crash is to drive by and not help them, and live with that the rest of your lives. After doing it once, it’s harder not to do it again. There are so many unmet needs.”
No stranger to activism
The seeds of activism were planted early in Davis' life. She was born in Ruston, La., the daughter of a Presbyterian minister and a Christian educator. Davis' parents encouraged their two sons and two daughters to be independent thinkers. Passionate discussions about the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War filled their home.
In college, Davis organized anti-war demonstrations. One summer, she met with minority prisoners to hear firsthand about racial biases in sentencing. By 1976, Davis was ordained. The next year, she was taking the families of prisoners to death row every month.
John Cole Vodicka, a prison activist in South Georgia, said Davis soon developed a reputation. Some prison officials who disdain death row activists delighted in denying access to prisoners. They rarely played those games with Davis.
“Folks know that she’s not going to go away,” he said. “To harass her or intimidate her is going to backfire.”
Nibs Stroupe, a friend of Davis and a Presbyterian minister, said Davis balances her faith with a shrewd self-awareness of her limitations. “Murphy has been at it for a long time,” he said. “She’s been up and down. She’s not going to pour herself out on everyone on death row.”
Prejean calls Davis her inspiration. When she was thinking of ministering to death row inmates, she traveled to Atlanta to hear Davis speak.
“She had that real down-to-earth quality, but she couples it with intelligence, laced with humor. She’s not harsh. She’s not macho. But she’s as strong as the dickens.”
Tough and tenacious
Davis had to summon all her strength last March, when she was struck down by Burkitt’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph tissues that is confined almost exclusively to children in tropical regions of Africa.
Davis' treatment was almost as painful as her diagnosis. She underwent eight hours of major surgery. She endured six months of “megachemotherapy,” receiving the largest dose of chemicals a patient can receive short of a bone marrow transplant.
When the news of Davis' condition spread on death row, inmates pressed Loring for details. “How’s Murphy? Tell her we’re praying for her,” they told him. They sent homemade cards to Davis. The homeless who visited the Open Door sent word to Davis that she was in their prayers.
Loring, 56, is quiet when asked about his wife’s illness. A kinetic man, he’s rarely at a loss for words.
“It was tough,” he said. “But she hasn’t complained.”
The Rev. Gerald Durly, head of Concerned Black Clergy, said Davis rarely saw visitors. When she did, though, he was struck by her serenity.
“They thought they were ministering to her, but she was ministering to them,” Durly said. "She would be sitting, telling people, ‘It’s going to be all right.’ ''
During her illness, Davis often turned to a favorite Bible passage, Isaiah 43:16: “Do not be afraid. . . . Your troubles will not overwhelm you. When you pass through fire, you will not be burned.”
Davis' thoughts also turned to a man she once knew, Warren McCleskey.
Gaining a sense of peace
In 1978, Frank Schlatt, an Atlanta police officer, was killed during the robbery of a furniture store. McCleskey, one of the robbers, was sentenced to die.
When Davis met McCleskey, he had already started an appeals process that would reach the Supreme Court. He claimed that he wasn’t the trigger man and that racial bias tainted his sentence.
McCleskey was in many ways a typical death row inmate. He was poor, black and had spent much of his life in trouble. But Davis saw an amazing change during her weekly visits. When he first entered death row, McCleskey asked another condemned prisoner how he could maintain his sanity. The prisoner opened his Bible. McCleskey’s conversion began.
Prison conversions are tricky matters. Few people place much stock in prisoners who convert to avert punishment.
Davis said she had no illusions about McCleskey’s criminal nature. Nor did he. “He was in trouble for years,” she said. “Warren never stepped away from acknowledging his guilt and sorrow.”
Davis said she embraced McCleskey not for what he did, but for the person he became. She knew him for 13 years, visiting him weekly and befriending his family. They wrote each other, and Davis rode the same roller coaster of exhilaration and sorrow as McCleskey’s appeals were accepted by one court, then overturned by another.
McCleskey told Davis he wanted to be forgiven for the pain he had caused others. Eventually, through Davis' counseling, McCleskey accepted that his life, damaged as it was, could still mean something. He accepted God’s forgiveness.
But the courts were not so forgiving. McCleskey became drained by the emotion of the appeals process. He told Davis that he didn’t want the courts to have that much power in his life. So he built a community of goodness in prison. With another prisoner, he pooled all of their resources and helped other prisoners in need. They held Bible studies. McCleskey blossomed.
But the Supreme Court turned aside McCleskey’s plea. On Sept. 24, 1991, McCleskey was executed. Before his death, he told the Schlatt family that he hoped his death would provide some comfort to them. “May God comfort you and continue to work through all of you,” he told Davis and other supporters who had come to say farewell.
Davis last saw McCleskey in a prison waiting room. As he was being led away in handcuffs, McCleskey smiled at her and waved.
“The courts, the media, the prison officials, the threats and even death itself lost power in Warren’s life,” Davis wrote shortly after his death. “He moved toward a peace and serenity I have never seen in another human being.”
A powerful lesson
Four years later, while struggling with her own illness, Davis began to live those words. She thought of McCleskey’s courage. She remembered a picture of him, taken days before his execution. He seemed utterly at ease.
“That’s powerful, because the sense of peace that you see in his face, that didn’t change,” she said. "We were with him until several hours before he died. He never crumbled. He never showed signs of fear or anxiety.
“He wanted to live. He was not some otherworldy Christian. But he knew he had found something that was more powerful than what the state could do to him.
As she tells this story, Davis leans forward in her chair, her eyes locked on her visitor.
“For me, the really important resource through that time was the fact that I had sat with so many people facing their own death. And I know people who sat, on the day of their deaths, and managed to maintain their dignity, their hopefulness, their love, their humanity, their capacity to not be eaten alive by fear.”
Five months after her initial diagnosis, Davis completed her chemotherapy. She visited the doctor and anxiously awaited the results of CAT scans and blood tests. When the tests came back, there were no traces of cancer. Her illness was in remission.
Davis resumed visiting death row last November. She continues today. Though she still struggles with fatigue, she has regained weight, and her hair has come back.
During the months she hovered near death, McCleskey gave Davis something an electric chair or cancer could not destroy.
Death had lost its sting.
“The people on death row taught me how to face death,” Davis says today. “These people who we say have nothing to offer. I can tell you what they have to offer. I’m a living witness to what they have to offer. And the hope, the love, the lack of fear that I was able to fear and experience was a gift from many of those people.”