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Lethal Injustice: No New Trial for Death Row Prisoner Troy Davis

The Georgia Supreme Court refuses to grant a new trial to a death row prisoner who is almost certainly innocent.
 
 
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Troy Anthony Davis is an innocent man on Georgia's death row. His lawyers believe it, his supporters believe it, even most of those who sent him to die believe it. Accused of killing a police officer in Savannah, Ga., in 1989, his conviction was based solely on eyewitness accounts from people who claimed to have seen Davis, then 20 years old, shoot police officer Mark Allen MacPhail to death in a Burger King parking lot. No murder weapon was ever found and no physical evidence linked him to the crime. Nevertheless, he was found guilty in 1991 and sentenced to die. Troy Davis would spend the next decade and a half on death row insisting on his innocence. Last summer, less than 24 hours before his scheduled execution, someone finally listened.

On the night of July 16, 2007, Troy Davis was facing death by lethal injection when he won a last-minute stay of execution by the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles. At a meeting that day lasting more than six hours, numerous people had asked the members of the board to spare Davis' life, among them Atlanta representative and civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis. In the world outside, Davis had the backing of countless anti-death penalty groups, Amnesty International, a handful of celebrities, and the Pope. But perhaps the most compelling support that day came from five of the original witnesses who had testified at Davis' trial. Sixteen years before, they had taken the stand for the prosecution; now they urged the board to save the life of an innocent man.

They were not alone. Of the nine original witnesses in the trial who implicated Davis, seven have recanted their testimony. Three of those seven have signed statements contradicting their identification of Davis as the triggerman. Two others who made claims that Davis had confessed to the murder later admitted they were lying. And other witnesses have since identified the shooter as another man altogether, a "thug" by the name of Sylvester Nathaniel Coles, who also happened to be one of the state's witnesses against Davis.

The Savannah police force has long defended its investigation of the MacPhail murder, including the veracity of the witness testimonies against Davis. But as more and more details have emerged about their claims, the more disturbingly clear it has become that the police played a major -- and coercive role -- in building the case against him. "There was a lot of pressure to get somebody," one former officer told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last year. As happens all too often with the murder of a white cop, it didn't seem to matter whether that "somebody" was guilty or not.

The trial began two years to the day following the death of Mark Allen MacPhail, on August 19, 1991. Davis was convicted and sentenced to die. Ten years later, with Davis languishing on death row, the case against him started to unravel. Witnesses revised their stories, saying that they had been pressured by police to implicate Davis; in 2000 one woman named Dorothy Ferrell, who during the trial had said she was "positive" Davis was the killer, signed an affidavit admitting that she had been on parole at the time and, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported, "feared she would be locked up again if she didn't tell police what they wanted to hear." In her statement she said: "I don't know which of the guys did the shooting, because I didn't see that part."

A sample of other statements:

"I was totally unsure whether [Davis] was the person who shot the officer."

"I told them Troy confessed to me. None of it was true."

As the truth came out, a movement of support formed around Davis -- but it would take his imminent execution and a barrage of media coverage for anyone in an official position to step in. Weeks after Davis' brush with death, on Aug. 3, 2007, on the basis of witness recantations and other developments, the Georgia Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal for new trial for Troy Davis. Oral arguments took place on Nov. 13. Four months later, this past Monday, March 16, the court made its ruling: Troy Davis would not get a new trial.

In a 4-3 decision, the court decided that not even the seven recanted testimonies were enough to merit a new trial. "We simply cannot disregard the jury's verdict in this case," wrote Justice Harold Melton. Never mind that the jury was working with hopelessly tainted evidence -- and that two of the jurors have declared that if they knew then what they know now, they would never have voted to convict Troy Davis. As Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears wrote in her dissent: "If recantation testimony … shows convincingly that prior trial testimony was false, it simply defies all logic and morality to hold that it must be disregarded categorically." But logic and morality have little say in a system that straps people to a gurney, outfits them with intravenous lines and murders them with a lethal cocktail. Once again, Troy Davis confronts this fate.

Even the most hardbitten death penalty lawyers and activists were stunned by the court ruling. Georgia defense attorney Chris Adams, a member of Davis' defense team, called it "a heartbreaking day." "I was very surprised by the decision on Monday," he said over the phone on Tuesday morning. "We felt that the proper course was to hear all the witnesses … and then to make a judgment call." Instead, the ruling means that new evidence that could clear Davis will likely never make it into the courtroom. To Adams, this is a travesty. This case, an "actual innocence case," is "the kind of case you go to law school for," he said. "You would hope all your cases would have this kind of significance -- or that none of them would."

Almost 20 years after his death, family members of officer MacPhail remain unmoved by Davis' strong innocence claims. On Tuesday, his mother told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she was satisfied with the Supreme Court's ruling. "I wonder, what do all those witnesses remember after 18 years?" MacPhail asked. "There is no new evidence. No mother should go through what I have been through."

It's hard to imagine that recantations by seven out of nine witnesses does not qualify as new evidence. And few as of yet have seen fit to talk to Davis' family about what they have been through, living out this nightmare for 18 years. Among them is Davis' sister, Martina Correia, a courageous and outspoken activist on his behalf, who is facing her own life or death struggle. While her brother has been fighting for his life on death row, she has been battling breast cancer.

On Monday, Martina stood on the Capitol steps in Atlanta and reiterated her belief that justice will prevail for her brother. "We have had years of disappointment before, but we still have fight in us. We are not giving up."

The case of Troy Davis is a horrible miscarriage of justice. But it can hardly be considered an aberration. Not in the context of the criminal justice system in Georgia, the only state in the country that does not provide lawyers for death row prisoners making final appeals. And not after the passage, in 1996, of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which greased the wheels of the country's execution machinery by sharply curtailing avenues for appeals and rendering new developments like the ones in Davis' case too little too late. And certainly not in the context of the 11th Circuit, whose courts had no problem signing off on an execution in Alabama in late January, while the rest of the country has executions on hold pending a Supreme Court decision on the constitutionality of lethal injection. Davis is not just the victim of a corrupt police investigation; he is the victim of a system designed to railroad prisoners to the execution chamber. What the Supreme Court ruling shows in this case, says Adams, is that "the rules really seem to favor finality over fairness."

Barring a successful appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, Davis will once again find himself at the mercy of the state parole board. Asked if there is reason to be optimistic given the board's past attention to the revelations in his case, Adams said, "Boy, you know, it's really hard to feel optimistic about it today." But when it comes to fighting for the life of an innocent man, there's not much choice. "You've got to be optimistic."

 
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