I’ll begin here: I feel enormous sympathy for the family of slain Savannah police officer Mark Allen MacPhail, and I hope they are able to move on as much as possible now that the execution of convicted murderer Troy Davis has finally occurred after two decades of appeals.

I followed Wednesday night’s news from the state prison in Jackson, Georgia on Twitter. Knowing that Davis was scheduled to die at 7 p.m., I checked in early in the evening on the New York Times website, which had a link to the Twitter account of Kim Severson, the paper’s Atlanta bureau chief who spent the evening outside the prison.

“Scheduled to die”: is that a term that should be so common?

I don’t know if there are any awards given for great coverage of breaking news via social media, but Severson deserves one. After posting new information, she would update the article on the Times’ website. The necessary spareness of Severson’s tweets, plus the occasional photos (the Davis family gathering after hearing that the Supreme Court had rejected the appeal for a stay, a small group of death penalty proponents) and strategic retweets, including other NYT news and thoughts from Big Boi, made for compelling drama.

Take a look at this sequence just before and just after the Supreme Court rejected the final appeal for a stay of execution (I’ve inverted the feed so that it can be read from top to bottom):

kimseverson Kim Severson
NAACP B. Jealous: #TroyDavis refuses last meal as a kind of good luck gesture. Did it before and it worked.

kimseverson Kim Severson
Radio reporter @gpbbennett says when she witnessed lethal injection here in 2008 process took 17 minutes once drugs began. #TroyDavis

BigBoi Big Boi of OUTKAST
by kimseverson
Man, I wonder how much all that helicopter gas cost…your hard earned tax dollars at work

kimseverson Kim Severson
Protestors quiet. Police quiet. #TroyDavis family quiet. Heat, wait and emotional exhaustion taking its toll.

kimseverson Kim Severson
Wish I had news to report. TV reporters nodding off. #TroyDavis family and the handful of MacPhail supporters looking so strained.

nytimes The New York Times
by kimseverson
White Supremacist Executed for Texas Dragging nyti.ms/q3U4VG

BigBoi Big Boi of OUTKAST
by kimseverson
I don’t see how they wore hard bottoms all day in the civil rights movement, I got on Nike ACG boots and my feet are killin me

kimseverson Kim Severson
Stay rejected #TroyDavis

kimseverson Kim Severson
Family gathering. #TroyDavis getting the news

kimseverson Kim Severson
Family of #TroyDavis in prayer. Hugging. Execution will come soon.

kimseverson Kim Severson
This is the scene as family digests the news. #TroyDavis yfrog.com/g0lmgrvj

kimseverson Kim Severson
‘we’re calling on everyone to stay calm.’ Benjamin Jealous of NAACP #troydavis

kimseverson Kim Severson
Execution will likely happen tonight. #troydavis

kimseverson Kim Severson
Family in prayer circle. Soft singing. Eyes closed. Heads bowed. #TroyDavis

I’m a longtime death penalty opponent and see every case as tragic on at least one level multiple levels. No, I didn’t shed any tears at news of the state-sanctioned deaths of some criminals who inflicted unimaginable horror: John Wayne Gacy, Timothy McVeigh, and on and on. But that doesn’t mean that I think we should use the death penalty in those cases. No matter how hard we try, there is always going to be a gray area. When a jury convicts someone beyond a reasonable doubt, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a shadow of a doubt. And history is not reassuring about the American justice system’s ability to make such fine distinctions.

Cameron Todd Willingham almost certainly did not kill his family in 1991, but the state of Texas executed him in 2004. Damien Echols almost certainly had nothing to do with the brutal murder of three boys in 1993, but he spent 17 years on death row before being released earlier this year. Ruben Cantu was only 17 when he allegedly murdered one man and gravely wounded another in Texas, but it wasn’t until 12 years after his execution that the Houston Chronicle raised substantial questions about his guilt. And those cases won’t even be in the list of former death row inmates who were eventually proved innocent.

I don’t really have an opinion one way or the other about the guilt of Troy Davis, but there was clearly doubt. Even Judge William T. Moore, who famously ruled earlier this year that Davis “is not innocent”, said: “Ultimately, while Mr. Davis’ new evidence casts some additional, minimal doubt on his conviction, it is largely smoke and mirrors.”

“Additional, minimal doubt.”

How much doubt is acceptable if we’re going to execute someone?

There apparently was no doubt in the other execution Wednesday night. In Texas, Lawrence Russell Brewer was executed for the insanely brutal dragging death of James Byrd Jr. in 1998. (Blogger David R. Henson has some interesting thoughts here.)

A black man in Georgia executed for the murder of a white man. A white man in Texas executed for the murder of a black man. The latter killing was widely seen as racist; the former case became a cause celebre fraught with issues of race.

Ironically, Wednesday night’s drama outside the prison in Jackson involved three of the most famous native Savannahians.

Troy Davis has become an iconic figure whose name will be heard for a long, long time.

As I mentioned earlier, Big Boi of OutKast was on the scene in Jackson; sore feet aside, he seems poised for new phase of political activism. He was born in Savannah and spent much of his childhood here; he’s a few years younger than Davis.

And Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was present in a sense in that field too — one of the nation’s most powerful jurists is also a black man from Savannah.

I’ll close with the words of Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun, from his dissenting opinion to a decision to deny a review of a Texas death penalty case, Callins v. Collins, Feb. 22, 1994:

From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death. For more than 20 years I have endeavored…to develop…rules that would lend more than the mere appearance of fairness to the death penalty endeavor…Rather than continue to coddle the court’s delusion that the desired level of fairness has been achieved…I feel…obligated simply to concede that the death penalty experiment has failed.