Civil Liberties  
comments_image Comments

Our Racist Justice System: How Troy Davis Has Spent 20 Years on Death Row, With Little Evidence Against Him

Davis's case has become an emblem for much of what is problematic about a capital punishment system that is riddled with racism, economic disparity and error.

“De’Jaun, come over here, I want to talk to you.”

De’Jaun Correia, a slender 13-year-old with thick corn-rows in his hair, sat down next to his uncle Troy Davis in the corner of the room. Troy described to De’Jaun what to expect now that he was approaching adolescence. “Your body’s gonna be changing…. Women, they go through things, and us guys, we go through things, too. The same thing happened to me when I was a young boy growing up.”

De’Jaun listened intently as his uncle explained the birds and the bees. It wasn’t the first time De’Jaun and Troy had had an intimate one on one. De’Jaun was more comfortable talking to his uncle, a sturdily built man with warm brown eyes, than anyone else.

Martina Davis-Correia, De’Jaun’s mother and Troy’s older sister, encouraged the close relationship that Troy had with her son. Troy helped Martina chastise De’Jaun if he got in trouble at school. “You don’t go to school to talk in class, you go to school to learn!” Troy would scold the boy. And then, once he felt sure that De’Jaun got the message, Troy grew gentle. “Now come here, and give me a hug.” Nephew and uncle embraced.

“He gets his discipline [from Troy],” Martina said. “But then he gets his love to back it up.”

Those uncle-and-nephew exchanges could be deemed ordinary, if not for their setting. The interactions took place in a narrow concrete room with locks and bars on its only door in the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, where Troy Davis is a prisoner on death row. When De’Juan was still little, death-row inmates and their visitors could be in the visiting room together; contact visits were taken away a year and a half ago. Now, De’Jaun receives his uncle’s counsel through phones mounted on either side of a plexiglass window.

Davis is on death row for the 1989 murder of white Savannah police officer Mark MacPhail. On Aug. 19, MacPhail was gunned down while rushing to the rescue of a homeless man being pistol-whipped in the parking lot of a Greyhound bus station. The day after the murder, a man named Sylvester “Red” Coles told the police that Troy Davis was the shooter. Davis was arrested and was convicted in 1991, primarily on the basis of eye-witness testimony.

There is no physical evidence linking Davis to the crime. The murder weapon was never recovered. Yet, Davis was sentenced to death. He has remained on death row for 20 years, despite the fact that the case against him has completely unraveled. He now awaits an execution date, which could be set any moment, having had his final appeal rejected by the Supreme Court.

Major human rights and civil liberty groups, including the NAACP, Amnesty International, and the ACLU, have taken up Davis’s case, and individuals ranging from President Jimmy Carter to Archbishop Desmond Tutu have spoken up on his behalf.

Davis’s case has become an emblem for much of what is problematic about a capital punishment system that is riddled with racism, economic disparity and error. Public capital defenders do not have the resources to properly investigate or litigate their overburdened case loads. Those with the means to hire decent legal representation are unlikely to end up on death row. Over 130 death row inmates have been exonerated since 1973, demonstrating just how many innocent people are convicted and sentenced to death. 

Meanwhile, there’s considerable evidence of a racial imbalance in who the government decides to kill. According to a 2001 study from the University of North Carolina, a defendant whose victim was white was 3.5 times as likely to receive the death penalty in North Carolina than if the victim were non-white. A 2005 study in California found the defendant of a white victim three times as likely to be penalized by death. Growing realizations of these problems have led more and more states to question their death penalty policies. Earlier this year, Illinois became the 16th state to abolish capital punishment.