In mid-August of 1989 several lives and events collided to create the situation that led to the murder of Savannah Georgia Police Officer Mark MacPhail. Although there were many parties to the events that transpired, the narrative that the police chose to pursue involved Troy Davis not only being the man who killed Officer MacPhail, but they alleged his involvement in another shooting prior to the murder and the beating of a homeless man with a pistol that was allegedly the same as was used in the shootings. I'll admit I wasn't convinced at first. But let the evidence and the course of the investigation tell the story. It's an interesting one and hopefully it can one day be used to save the lives of others who have been condemned on (at best) flimsy evidence and questionable (and then recanted) witness testimony. I have come to the conclusion, all told, that the system not only failed Troy at the trial level, that much is painfully obvious. But the real travesty in this story is how the courts failed to do the right thing when presented with reason upon reason why the original trial was tainted. I truly hope we can use this case in positive ways, and that Troy's memory can live on through positive changes within the system that just might prevent such a miscarriage of justice in the future.
He said, She said
As is typically the case in these situations, the prosecution relied on a narrative that doesn't always make sense. From their point of view, the police are looking to solve a crime, and a personal one at that since it is one of their own. However, there can be a problem with knowing (or thinking you know) the details of A and Z and now you need to figure out what happened in between. When trying to build a strong case, you may run into obstacles that challenge your assumptions about your suspect. In this case, as with others, the charged atmosphere of wanting to avenge a fallen brother probably poisoned the well and they found someone that looked good for the crime. Once that happened, everything was about making him look guilty. Cops often talk about that sense that they just 'know' when someone is guilty. I don't doubt for a second that someone on the job develops a sixth sense of being able to tell when someone is lying or hiding something. But I don't necessarily believe that every cop possesses this trait or that it is as well developed as they might think. That said, it appears that the police did everything they could to fortify the case against Troy Davis. There were other suspects, but some of these were part of their narrative to nail Troy. Below I will lay out some of the testimony and evidence and you can decide for yourself which way it points, or at the very least, which way it doesn't point.
The prosecution's case began with an attempt to tie Troy Davis to the shooting of Michael Cooper on the evening of August 18. They then alleged that Davis met with 'Redd' Coles at a pool hall, struck Larry Young with the pistol he had used, and then killed MacPhail.
Cooper testified that he was intoxicated when he was shot, and although he had quarrelled with a few people of whom Davis was one, he said that Davis, "didn't know me well enough to shoot me."
Benjamin Gordon described the clothing of the shooter as a white Batman t-shirt and blue shorts, but upon cross-examination he admitted that he hadn't seen the shooter and didn't know Davis.
Daryl Collins had said in a statement that he had seen Davis shooting at the car containing Cooper. However on cross he admitted that he had not seen Davis carrying or shooting a gun on that night. Collins,16 at the time of his statement, claimed he was told by police he would be imprisoned if he didn't cooperate with the investigation.
Doesn't seem like much so far, does it? If I didn't know any better I might think Troy was being set up at the early crime to strengthen the case of the murder.
But the meat of the prosecution was reserved for dealing with the murder of Officer MacPhail.
Antoine Williams said that Davis, wearing a white shirt had struck Young and then shot MacPhail.
Harriet Murray and Dorothy Ferrell testified to the same as Williams, but also that Davis shot MacPhail again when he was on the ground.
Sylvester 'Redd' Coles testified that Davis, wearing a white shirt, had shot MacPhail. He admitted to quarrelling with Young himself but claimed Davis was the one who pistol-whipped him. Upon cross, Coles admitted to owning a .38 caliber pistol, the type determined to having been used, but claimed he had given it to another man earlier on the night of the crime. And here I thought cops didn't believe in coincidence.
Air Force personnel Robert Grizzard and Steven Sanders were called. Sanders identified Davis as the shooter while Grizzard could not.
Daryl Collins also testified to having seen Davis approach Macphail, but as earlier, he retracted his statement upon cross examination.
No gun was produced, and the ballistics expert stated that the bullet that killed MacPhail could have been fired from the same gun that wounded Cooper. He also stated the .38 casings from both scenes matched.
In all, 34 witnesses testified for the prosecution, to the Defense's 6.
Davis denied shooting Cooper or MacPhail, and testified that he had seen Coles fighting with Young but had fled the scene before shots were fired. His mother testified that he was at home on August 19 until 9pm when he drove to Atlanta with his sister.
Appeal: (v) to make a serious or urgent request
During the first appellate proceedings, Davis requested a new trial citing problems with the site of the trial and jury selection. It was denied. In 1993 the GA Supreme Court upheld the conviction, stating the trial judge was correct in not changing the site and that Davis' rights were not compromised by the racial composition of the jury. In 1994 an order was signed for his execution.
Davis began Habeas Corpus petitions in 1994, but in 1995 the federal funding for the GA Resource Center was slashed by 70% and Davis' defense suffered as a result. In 2001 he filed his petition in US District Court. From 1996 onward, seven of the nine primary witnesses for the prosecution had changed or recanted their original testimony. The following might explain this:
Dorothy Ferrell stated she felt pressure from the police to identify Davis as the shooter because she was on parole for shoplifting.
Daryl Collins stated that the police threatened to charge him as an accessory to the crime. Remember, Collins was 16 when this happened. He furthermore stated that he had not seen Davis do anything to Young.
Antoine Williams, Larry Young and Monty Holmes all stated in affidavits that their original testimony had been coerced by'strong-arm' police tactics.
In addition to all of this, three witnesses signed sworn statements stating that Redd Coles had confessed the murder to them.
I think, considering all of the above, that we can safely say at this point that Troy Anthony Davis was absolutely railroaded in this investigation. Witnesses were coerced and recanted. The police wanted their pound of flesh, and they didn't seem to care whose it was. The primary motivation in the wake of a murder is to catch the person responsible, but that doesn't seem to always be the case. Is it a case of people being evil when they dismiss evidence that could lead them down a new path? In a case like this, is it racism? There has to be a way of keeping things fair. I always make the argument that our justice system, as flawed as it is, seems to be the best working example when used as it was meant to be used and not abused for vendettas or politics. But that isn't to say it needs no help. The blogosphere is rife with stories of the wrongly convicted, and even if half of those were bogus, it still shows the need for solutions within the system. These judges make decisions that seem to come from arrogance a lot of the time. What else are we supposed to think of the justice system when we see witnesses recant testimony due to coercion and the Judge tells us that he's sorry, he just doesn't find that evidence credible or compelling, so he's going to stick with their original statement. Not only that, a disservice was done to the memory of Mark MacPhail and to his family as the true murderer never paid for his crime.
And just so we can all say we were honest with each other about the racial implications at play here, let's take a look at this. Come on, we're all adults. But what will we do about it?
Racial disparities pervade every component of the justice system. A report from Amnesty International concluded that 77 percent of people executed since 1977 were people convicted of crimes involving white victims, compared to only 15 percent of people executed for killing blacks. A full 42 percent of the 3,100 inmates on death row are people of color. (Benjamin Todd Jealous, "Remembering Troy Davis and Ending the Death Penalty"
Walking the Long Mile
The public reaction to Troy's case grew immensely in the early to mid 2000's. A short list of celebrities and activists calling for everything from a stay of execution to a new trial to an outright pardon included Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Sister Helen Prejean (author of Dead Man Walking), actor Mike Farrell (MASH), singer Harry Belafonte and Pope Benedict XVI.
Bob Barr, former presidential candidate, a firm believer in the death penalty when appropriate, wrote that the proper measure of fairness and accuracy required for the ultimate punishment had not been met in Davis' case.
Former President and Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter released a letter stating, "Executing Troy Davis without a real examination of potentially exonerating evidence risks taking the life of an innocent man and would be a grave miscarriage of justice."
Troy's first execution date was stayed to allow for the examination of possible evidence and defense requested a new trial based on statements of mistaken identity. On March 17, 2008, the Georgia Supreme Court denied the appeal by a 4–3 majority, writing that the recanting witnesses "have merely stated they now do not feel able to identify the shooter", and that they favored the original testimony over the new. In dissent, the Chief Justice wrote that "if recantation testimony, either alone or supported by other evidence, shows convincingly that prior trial testimony was false, it simply defies all logic and morality to hold that it must be disregarded categorically".
Two more execution dates came, more stays, and more hearings. Troy eventually found his case before the Supreme Court of the United States in August 2009 when it ordered the Savannah federal district court to "receive testimony and make findings of fact as to whetyher evidence that could not have been obtained at the time of the trial clearly establishes [Davis'] innocence."
Incidentally, among the dissenting Justices were the seemingly deaf-mute Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, who stated a new hearing would be a "fool's errand" and that Davis' case was a "sure loser".
I'm not sure which case they were referring to. If it was Davis', I would suggest they are not qualified to sit where they do.
In response to the SCOTUS order, a two day hearing was held. It was filled with recantations, statements by witnesses that they were illiterate and couldn't read the police statements they signed, and more inconsistencies. However, Judge William T. Moore was still not convinced. He dismissed witness claims that Coles confessed to the murder unless Coles showed up to testify. In his decision, Moore wrote: "while Mr. Davis's new evidence casts some additional, minimal doubt on his conviction, it is largely smoke and mirrors. "
Troy Anthony Davis was executed by lethal injection on September 21, 2011. He was declared dead at 11:08pm. Twitter recorded 7671 tweets per second in the moments before receiving word of Davis's execution. Below are his last words.
Well, first of all I'd like to address the MacPhail family. I'd like to let you all know, despite the situation – I know all of you are still convinced that I'm the person that killed your father, your son and your brother, but I am innocent. The incident that happened that night was not my fault. I did not have a gun that night. I did not shoot your family member. But I am so sorry for your loss. I really am – sincerely. All I can ask is that each of you look deeper into this case, so that you really will finally see the truth. I ask my family and friends that you all continue to pray, that you all continue to forgive. Continue to fight this fight. For those about to take my life, may God have mercy on all of your souls. God bless you all.
Sources and Links
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Troy Anthony Davis Official Website
Remembering Troy Davis and Ending the Death Penalty
Listen: Amnesty's telephone conversation with Troy (mp3)
Troy Davis on Wiki
Article written by Mike Palmer
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