A DISCUSSION OF LAW AND JOURNALISM

The Death of Troy Davis

By Ryan Morrison

At 11:08 p.m. September 21, Troy Davis was given three lethal injections that ended his life.  He was put to death for the murder of police officer Mark Allen MacPhail. Before his eyes shut for the last time, Mr. Davis begged Mr. MacPhail’s family to continue looking into this case. He proclaimed his innocence, as he had countless times over the past 22 years, and asked god to forgive the men about to put him to death.

As of January 1, 2011 there were 3,251 inmates on death row nationwide. It would be a safe bet to assume that when asked, most of these inmates would proclaim their innocence, just the same as Mr. Davis did. Why then, did so many feel so strongly about Troy Davis and his fate?

The media reported that the prosecution had, at best, a flimsy case and that many key witnesses had recanted their testimonies, as well as how former President Jimmy Carter, along with 51 senators, requested the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to pardon Mr. Davis. We were also told about the case making its way in and out of our Supreme Court.  But this is where things got murky. There was little explanation of how the end result was reached from a legal standpoint. Allow LASIS to explain.  

Mr. Davis was accused and convicted in 1989 for the murder of an off-duty police officer, Mr. MacPhail, who had responded to the beating of a homeless man when he was shot multiple times. Mr. Davis has never denied his presence at the scene, but he accused a companion, Sylvester “Redd” Coles, of being responsible for the shooting.

No murder weapon was ever recovered, but ballistic evidence presented at the trial linked bullets recovered at the crime scene to those at the scene of another shooting Mr. Davis had been charged with. Seven witnesses at the trial testified that they saw Mr. Davis kill the off-duty cop. A close friend testified that Mr. Davis later told a detailed story about the shooting, saying that he, “had to finish the cop off,” because the policeman had seen him. A cellmate of Mr. Davis would give similar testimony.

Mr. Davis, on the other hand, would attempt to explain that Mr. Coles was the actual shooter and that he had told no such story to anyone. After his conviction he would go through an 18 year process of appeals through state and federal courts alleging incompetent representation, prejudicial jury selection, and the prosecution knowingly presenting false testimony. He lost again and again.

In 2007, the state court set an execution date. With most of his legal options exhausted, Mr. Davis then filed what is called an “extraordinary motion for new trial.” To support his request he presented new evidence consisting of seven affidavits from witnesses at the original trial who recanted their testimony, three of whom now claimed Redd Coles was the actual murderer, and many additional affidavits from various sources including ballistic experts who assessed the evidence tying Mr. Davis to this murder and found it unpersuasive. Additionally, witnesses now swore that they had been coerced by police to identify Troy Davis as the murderer.

The most chilling piece of evidence of all however, at least according to Mr. Davis’ supporters, was that the ‘friend’ who had testified that Mr. Davis bragged about committing the murder was none other than Redd Coles himself.

This case gained national attention very quickly, most importantly from the Innocence Project, a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals. The group actively brings public awareness to injustices and mounts defenses for those people who it believes were wrongfully accused.

Meet Barry Gibbs. Mr. Gibbs was convicted in 1988 solely due to eyewitness testimony, much like Mr. Davis. Also similar to the Davis case, the eyewitness later recanted his testimony, saying he was coerced into identifying Mr. Gibbs by the prosecution.

Thanks in part to the Innocence Project, Mr. Gibbs was freed.

But somehow, the Georgia state court denied Mr. Davis’ motion, sending Mr. Davis’ supporters into an uproar. Amnesty International, along with a laundry list of celebrities and politicians rallied behind Mr. Davis, which led to a review by the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole. The board, which had never commented officially on a death penalty case before, released the following statement: “[a]fter an exhaustive review of all available information regarding the Troy Davis case and after considering all possible reasons for granting clemency, the Board … determined that clemency is not warranted.”

This only further fueled the fire building in the group behind Mr. Davis. On August 17, 2009, the Supreme Court ordered a federal district court in Georgia to consider whether new evidence “that could not have been obtained at the time of trial clearly establishes Mr. Davis’ innocence.”

The Georgia courts found no reason to overturn the initial decision. There was one last sliver of hope when the Court honored the 11th hour request of his supporters to discuss the possibility of a stay of execution once more. In the end, the Court issued only this:

“The application for stay of execution of sentence of death presented to Justice THOMAS and by him referred to the Court is denied.”

With that simple sentence the life of Troy Davis would end. His story however, and the national debate on capital punishment it would bring, is far from over.

I must apologize to you, the reader, for lying. I said I would explain this complicated issue, however I cannot. There is no explanation for why we put to death a man on such questionable evidence. Unfortunately, if history shows us anything, this will also not be the last time.

Comments

2 Comments »

2 Responses

  1. Cristo says:

    Thoughtful piece. So sad.

  2. M-Tiz says:

    Brilliant article…

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