A year ago Saturday, Gautam Narula received a letter from a dead man.
After a political science class, Narula, then a freshman at the University of Georgia, returned to his dorm, Myers Hall, and checked his mail. He found a plain white envelope addressed to him in broad sweeping cursive letters.
The return address began Troy Anthony Davis #657378. The world-famous convicted murderer on death row for two decades had been executed by lethal injection at 11:08 p.m. at a prison in Jackson, Ga., the previous evening. Yet three days before, Davis managed to send one last letter to his old friend.
After half an hour, Narula mustered the courage to open the envelope. Its contents were a concentrated microcosm of the many emotional ups and downs from the previous three years.
How’s my nephew holding up these days? I heard you and Pranavi [Narula’s sister] were at the rally friday evening. I’m glad to know you were able to make it. Give everyone my love for me.
How’s Pranavi holding up emotionally at the moment as well as yourself? I prayed that the Courts would have granted me relief somehow but we’ll see what the Board members will do …
The letter was the last remnant of a unique three-year friendship between an Indian-American teenager from an Atlanta suburb and a 40-ish black inmate from an impoverished Savannah, Ga., neighborhood. It spoke of family and faith, quoting from the Bible, James 2:17, “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” Whether out of habit or a hope that the execution date would be stayed once again, the letter appears to have been written in belief that it would receive a response. It is riddled with inquiries into how the freshman was settling into college and how his family was faring.
Narula had first met Davis in 2008, as a 15-year-old high school sophomore. Through a friend interning for Amnesty International, he had become aware of Davis when the organization was working to prevent Davis’ scheduled September 2008 execution (the execution was eventually stayed 90 minutes before the planned time). That night Narula wrote a letter to Davis and was surprised to receive both a response and an invitation to visit.
Over the next three years, Narula and his family would visit Davis about a dozen times, usually at roughly 90-day intervals, per death row visitation regulations. In between visits, they corresponded frequently by mail and telephone.
“As far as I know, there were no other middle or high school students that he met with besides me and my younger sister,” Narula said.
This year, Narula is writing and self-publishing a book about their friendship called Remain Free: A Journey Through Life and Death With Troy Davis. It promises to be one of the very few insights the world will have into the true life of the most famous death row inmate in the world. Widely believed to be innocent, his case would launch nearly a million petition signatures and a worldwide debate about due process, the death penalty and race that both Jimmy Carter and the Pope would eventually weigh in on.
But few are aware of the personal toll all this took on the icon himself. When David was first convicted at 22 years old, he was engaged to be married. Eventually, Davis had to remove his former fiancé from his visitors list after she repeatedly shared with Davis fantasies of running away with him even after she had found a new husband. Few are aware how it much it hurt the man when he barely recognized much older versions of his family who had come to visit; his only mental images of them remained the ones he left in August 1991 he was convicted of killing police officer Mark McPhail.
During their five-hour visits every three months, Narula and Davis developed a strong bond.
“’When I get out, Gautam, the first thing I’m going to do is take you fishing,’” Narula recalls Davis saying during one of their meetings.
He told Gautam about the one time he got to leave the prison, when Al Shapton visited.
“He said he dropped down and immediately started feeling the blades of grass because he hadn’t felt them in years,” Narula said.
Perhaps the most harrowing visit was the second one, when Davis gave his own version of the events of Aug. 19, 1989, the night he was convicted of killing McPhail who was serving as a security guard near a Burger King.
He also told Narula and his family about the conditions on death row. Narula said he went home and wrote an article about it, but never published it because he was unsure how the details might affect the case and he didn’t want Davis’ good position within the prison to be threatened.
Now that Davis is dead, Narula said he feels safer in detailing exactly what Davis says he was actually doing the evening of the murder.
Narula originally planned to release the book this Friday, the first anniversary of Davis’ death. Though he’s pushed the date back to allow for more editing and revising, he mounted a month-long online fundraiser this summer that took in $10,700 from nearly 200 unique donors. Depending on the final length of the book and the cost of the publication, that’s likely enough for at least 1,000-2,000 copies, with potential for further printing.
“Maybe I’ll go the route of a lot of other self-publishers end up doing,” Narula said in an email. “Self-publishing the book and then selling the rights to a larger publishing company if it ends up being successful.”