Poor Troy Davis. In an effort to save his own skin, this convicted murderer has allowed himself to become a pawn in a national debate over a morally loaded subject the outlines of which he can’t even begin to sketch, much less understand: the abolition of the death penalty in the United States.
The tragedy here is that opponents of the death penalty apparently care little for Davis—or anyone else, for that matter. If they did, they wouldn’t be prolonging his individual agony and the collective agony of the family of Savannah police Officer Mark MacPhail, whom Davis gunned down in cold blood almost 20 years ago.
No, Davis is simply a means to an end, a thing to be used in the service of someone else’s vision of a higher ideal. For example, when the U.S. Supreme Court adjourned in June without ruling on Davis’ latest appeal, defense attorney Laura Moye of London-based Amnesty International said, “This buys more time for all of the advocates to get more publicity on the case.”
What? It didn’t mercifully allow Davis to live a little longer? It didn’t allow time to search for truth and justice? It didn’t allow time to move death penalty law a bit forward? No. The adjournment only provided an opportunity to generate publicity, which is what this case has been about from the beginning. (Davis even has his own web page, where viewers can read poems and listen to a song written about him.)
We don’t need a web page or a song to know that PR is front and center in this particular case. The groundless legal appeals and staged media events on behalf of Davis fit a pattern utilized again and again by ideological opponents of the death penalty.
First, they pick an old case, one where memories have dimmed and the physical evidence has been degraded or lost. Second, they gather material and lie in wait, then, just before a long-scheduled execution, they spring into action claiming “recantations” and “new evidence.” Third, a PR campaign is cranked up to put pressure on prosecutors, courts and, in this case, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles. These steps are invariably followed by demands for hearings and a new trial, no matter how flimsy the legal arguments.
This is exactly what has happened here.
Former President Jimmy Carter, Bishop Desmond Tutu and Pope Benedict XVI have all chimed in on the side of Davis. Some 27 former federal jurists and prosecutors have filed a brief on his behalf. A huge petition bearing 70,000 signatures from around the world has been handed to the Chatham County district attorney, urging him to re-open the case. If publicity was all that mattered, Troy Anthony Davis would be back prowling the streets of Savannah tonight.
But overlooked in all the hooplah is a troubling reality for death penalty opponents: a jury is the trier of fact, not the media. Add to that the fact that not one of the people begging to spare Davis’ life sat in the jury box and heard all the evidence against him, and it becomes obvious that the abolitionists are facing daunting odds.
For readers who may be unfamiliar with the Davis case, a recap may be in order. On a hot August night in Savannah, Georgia in 1989, Troy Davis shot a man named Michael Cooper at a pool party. In the wee hours of the next morning—August 19—an intoxicated homeless man wandered out of a store and onto the parking lot of a Burger King restaurant, where Davis and his buddies were loitering following the earlier shooting. The group verbally assaulted the homeless man, followed him, then pistol-whipped their helpless victim.
Officer MacPhail, 27, a former U.S. Army Ranger and father of two, was working a second job as a security guard nearby. When he heard the commotion, MacPhail ran past a man named Sylvester Coles (this is important) to get to the scene of the beating. Once he got there, witnesses told police and testified under oath in open court that Davis hit MacPhail in the head with a pistol then shot him multiple times as he lay sprawled on the asphalt. (MacPhail never drew his gun.)
Both Davis and Coles ran from the parking lot only to return while Savannah police officers and homicide detectives were still processing the murder scene. When they met up, Davis begged Coles for a fresh shirt. Why? Was it to get rid of blood spatter evidence or to change his appearance?
No one knows, but we do know this: a few hours later, Coles showed up at the Savannah police department with his lawyer and voluntarily gave officers a statement implicating Davis in MacPhail’s murder. His lawyer waited outside the interrogation room. This too is important. Not even a first year law student would allow a client to speak alone with officers if the client had been involved in criminal activity.
Meanwhile, Davis fled to Atlanta with his sister.
To make a long story short, based partly on the testimony of nine witnesses, two years after the killing, Davis was convicted and sentenced to death by lethal injection, touching off Georgia’s automatic appeals process, a molasses-slow mechanism that can last a decade or more.
One of the most often used arguments against the death penalty is that it falls disproportionately on minorities, especially on blacks who kill whites. Although Davis is black and MacPhail was white, death penalty opponents have been silenced in this instance.
Three blacks were dropped from the jury pool during voir dire. Two said they could not apply the death penalty, and the third had a disqualifying relationship with Davis’ family. However, the jury that convicted Davis and then sentenced him to death was composed of five whites and seven blacks, a higher percentage of blacks than in Chatham County, Georgia as a whole.
Unable to play the race card, opponents instead argued that there is no physical evidence linking Davis to the murder, but this is not so. The state crime lab found that a shell casing found at the murder scene matched those found at the scene of the earlier shooting of Michael Cooper at the pool party. Davis was convicted of shooting Cooper, and no defense lawyer has been able to get that pistol out of Davis’ hand between the time Cooper was shot and MacPhail was murdered.
In the decade after Davis’ conviction, state courts heard these arguments—and more—and were unimpressed with any of them. But as the automatic appeals process was winding down, death penalty opponents began collecting affidavits from the people who had testified against Davis back in 1991. They had some of the statements in hand as early as 2003, a good 12 years after the trial and four years before his first scheduled execution.
Many of the witnesses said they had been pressured by the police to make their original statements and to testify in court. No one can know what they felt, but it could have been nothing more than the fact that police officers are trained to get witness statements recorded and on paper as soon as possible, when memories are fresh and pressure from the community to not cooperate with authorities has not had time to build.
Davis’ lawyers would eventually get seven of the nine witnesses against him to swear they were no longer sure of their original testimony or that they had lied, a recantation rate so spectacular as to be beyond belief. Yet, not one of the seven who “recanted” swears now that Davis is not the killer. What most said, some of them 16 years after the murder, is that they were no longer sure of their earlier testimony.
That’s why no court has given the later statements much weight. In one combination or another, more than 30 judges in eight different courts have studied the affidavits and not one has seen fit to overturn the jury’s verdict.
Although lawyers representing Davis had many of the affidavits in hand as far back as 2003, they waited until eight days before Davis was scheduled to die on July 17, 2007 to dramatically drop them on the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles, which stopped the execution with 24 hours to spare. Over the next year, the board compared the new statements with the original trial testimony, studied the physical evidence, heard witnesses called by Davis’ lawyers—including Davis himself—and refused to commute the sentence. Since then, Davis has twice escaped death when courts issued last-minute stays.
In the midst of this long-running tragedy, a farce is being acted out. Lawyers for Davis now say that Coles is the real killer, despite the fact that witnesses testified that MacPhail ran past Coles to get to where Davis and his pals were pistol-whipping the homeless man. This is a wildly irresponsible accusation. Not only did Coles have no motive to shoot MacPhail that fateful night, he cooperated with police during the investigation.
(Just for fun—although there is nothing funny about it—let’s take this assertion forward. Suppose Amnesty International’s Death Penalty Abolition Campaign and its allies succeed in springing Davis. Then suppose Chatham County District Attorney Larry Chisolm successfully prosecutes Coles for MacPhail’s murder and gets him sentenced to death. Do Davis’ lawyers celebrate their victory and walk away, or do they turn around and defend Coles? And on what grounds? That the “evidence” they ginned up against him is phony? Untangle that ethical web!)
This is not to argue the guilt or innocence of Troy Anthony Davis. A jury of his peers determined that he is guilty of killing Officer Mark MacPhail and decided that he should die for the crime, as Georgia law provides. Courts both federal and state, along with the parole board, have rummaged around in the evidence against Davis for almost 20 years, and not one venue has found that the jury misinterpreted a shred of it.
It is to argue, instead, that opponents of the death penalty do irreparable damage to their cause and bring into question their own integrity when they select a predator like Troy Davis as their poster boy and whip up a public relations campaign designed to shame the general public into emotionally hugging him like some cuddly little teddy bear. And Davis does himself no favors when on his web site he takes no responsibility for his own actions but blames his predicament on “the blatant racism and bias in the U.S. Court System.” Calling every jurist from Chatham County to the U. S. Supreme Court a biased racist is a non-starter, to say the least.
A nationwide Gallup poll of 1,015 Americans conducted in May disclosed that 92 percent find it morally permissible to condemn criminals to death. It appears counter-intuitive, but it is against this tide of public opinion that any movement to abolish the penalty has to begin. The only argument against the death penalty that will ever be successful is the moral one: taking the life of a human being is wrong.
It doesn’t matter if the culprit is Troy Davis or the State of Georgia.
Editor’s note: Debate about the Troy Davis case has been widespread, not only in Georgia and the South, but around the world. Two different views on the case previously appeared on likethedew.com. In this instance, as with the earlier stories, the views expressed are those of the writer and are not necessarily shared by other writers or readers of likethedew. We encourage respectful debate and comments on this serious topic.
Rethinking the Death Penalty: https://likethedew.com/2009/06/25/rethinking-the-death-penalty/
Witnesses Recant; Troy Davis Still on Death Row: https://likethedew.com/2009/05/21/witnesses-recant-but-troy-davis-still-on-death-row/