Our Racist Justice System: How Troy Davis Has Spent 20 Years on Death Row, With Little Evidence Against Him
“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.
Even pro-death penalty advocates, such as former FBI director and federal judge William Sessions and former Republican Congressman from Georgia Bob Barr, have spoken out against executing Davis, citing “crucial unanswered questions” (Sessions) and a lack of the requisite fairness and accuracy required to apply the death penalty (Barr).
The “crucial, unanswered questions” include the fact that seven of the nine non-police witnesses later recanted or changed their testimonies, many stating that police coercion and intimidation led to their initial implication of Davis.
“After a couple of hours of the detectives yelling at me and threatening me, I finally broke down and told them what they wanted to hear,” witness Darrell Collins wrote in an affidavit in 2002. Collins was 16 years old the night of the murder, and had been interrogated by the police for hours without his parents present. “They would tell me things that they said had happened and I would repeat whatever they said.”
New witnesses have come forth identifying Coles himself as the shooter. “I saw Sylvester Coles—I know him by the name Red—shoot the police officer. I am positive it was Red who shot the police officer,” Joseph Washington wrote in a 1996 affidavit.
Ballistics were used at trial to attempt to connect Davis to an earlier non-fatal shooting. However, that victim later denied that Davis shot him and a later report by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation stated that there was no conclusive evidence to link the shell casings at the crime scenes.
For years, Davis tried to get his possibly exculpatory evidence heard in a court of law. Appeal after appeal was denied on procedural grounds, in closely divided rulings. Finally, in August 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a highly unusual move, ordered an evidentiary hearing for Davis. The hearing took place in June 2010 in a Georgia federal courtroom. But the burden of proof was on Davis. Rather than presumed innocent, as Davis would be were he granted a re-trial, the Supreme Court ordered Davis to “clearly establish innocence.”
There was no physical evidence, so DNA testing could not assist Davis. Four witnesses took the stand to recant their 1991 testimony against Davis. Though their original testimony had been determined credible enough to place Davis on death row, the state now vehemently attacked the witnesses’ credibility. New testimony from witnesses who stated that they saw Coles pull the trigger, or that Coles confessed to them, was treated as hearsay. Presiding Judge William Moore determined that Davis did not meet the extremely high standard of “clearly establishing innocence,” though even Moore admitted in his ruling that the hearing did cast some additional doubt as to Davis’s guilt and that the case was “not ironclad.” Davis’s conviction, and death sentence, remain.
On March 28, 2011, the Supreme Court denied Davis’s final appeal, clearing the way for the state of Georgia to set a fourth execution date in as many years.
Truths Children Can See
De’Jaun remembers the first execution date vividly. It was July 17, 2007. He was 13 years old. “We went to go see him, and he wasn’t really worrying about himself. He was mostly worried about his family. About us. I was looking at my grandmother. She was praying, praying, praying. It was a lot of people constantly praying, constantly praying.”
Troy gave each family member a duty. With what did he task his young nephew? “He told me, just continue to do good in school, do what’s right, pick the right friends, watch over the family, and just respect the family. Respect my mom, my grandmother, my aunties. Do what you love and have a good profession.”
The execution was stayed less than 24 hours before it was to be carried out. The following year, Davis came within 90 minutes of lethal injection.
In addition to dealing with his uncle facing execution, and while carrying a full load of advanced placement classes in his high-school’s International Baccalaureate program, De’Jaun lives with the stress of his mother being critically ill. Martina has been battling stage-four breast cancer since De’Jaun was six years old. Her original diagnosis was six months or less. That was ten years ago, and Martina, who is far tougher than her willowy frame might suggest, is still fighting.
De’Jaun has always turned to his Uncle Troy during hard times. Martina first brought De’Jaun to death row to meet his uncle when he was six weeks old.
“You would think I gave [Troy] a gold bar,” Martina recounted. “Troy was scared to hold him. I literally had to just put De’Jaun in his arms and walk away. And he was like, ‘But he’s so little. Come, get him, get him, get him.’ And I was like, ‘No, you get him. You hold him.’ ” Martina smiled at the memory. “It was just such a magical moment, because it was like I was giving my brother this gift.”
As a tiny boy, De’Jaun didn’t understand that his uncle was incarcerated, much less slated for death. De’Jaun told me, “When the family was getting ready to leave after a visit, I’d say, ‘Come on, Troy, let’s go, let’s go!’ But he couldn’t go with us, and my mom would say, ‘He’s in school. He can’t come. One day, he’ll come home with us.’”
As De’Jaun grew older, Martina explained to him that his uncle was in prison. But she had not yet told him that Georgia planned to kill him. When De’Jaun was 12 years old, it became clear to Martina that her son understood far more than she had realized.
Their dog, Egypt, had gotten out of the yard and had been hit by a car. Martina and De’Jaun immediately brought Egypt to a vet who told them that the dog’s leg was broken in three places and would need extensive surgery to be repaired. If Egypt did not have the surgery, she would have to be put to sleep. The cost of the surgery, the vet told Martina, was upwards of $10,000.
As Martina drove De’Juan home, she wondered how in the world would she come up with $10,000. Putting Egypt down might be the only realistic possibility.
In the silence of the ride, De’Jaun turned to his mother. “Mom, are you going put my dog to sleep like they’re trying to put my Uncle Troy to sleep?”
“I looked at my son, and he was looking at me…. I had to swallow this giant lump in my throat to hold back the tears,” Martina recounted. “I didn’t know that he related the two things. That he knew they were trying to kill his Uncle Troy. And he knew about which method that they wanted to [use to] kill him. At that point, I decided … [even] if I had to pawn my car, I wasn’t going to be able to put my dog to sleep.”
Killing Troy Davis
De’Jaun’s realization that the state of Georgia wants to kill his uncle using methods similar to putting an animal to sleep has added relevance today. Georgia traditionally used a three-drug cocktail in its lethal injections. One of the drugs, sodium thiopental, anesthetized the victim. But the only domestic manufacturer of sodium thiopental, Hospira, discontinued its production of the drug last year, which sent states scrambling to obtain a stockpile.
Georgia acquired a stash of the drug from Dream Pharma, a shady British company that operates from the back of a London driving school. Georgia imported the drug without declaring it with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), which is a violation of federal regulations. So in March, the DEA confiscated Georgia’s supply of sodium thiopental, temporarily placing the brakes on the state’s ability to implement death sentences.
On May 20, however, Georgia announced that it would substitute sodium thiopental with pentobarbital, opening the way to execute once more. As De’Jaun suggested, pentobarbital is, indeed, what is used to euthenize animals.
Troy’s execution will likely be the first to be scheduled under this new procedure, though there may be some grace time. The Chatham County District Attorney’s office said it would not immediately seek a warrant for Davis’s execution, presumably out of compassion for the fact that Virginia Davis, Troy’s mother, passed away on April 12. The Davis family matriarch, who had just received a clean bill of health from her doctor the day before, died of “natural causes” just two weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court denied Davis’s final appeal.
Martina believes that her mother died from a broken heart. “I don’t think my mother could have taken another execution date,” she told a reporter. It was De’Jaun who found his 65-year-old grandmother slumped over in her chair when he came home from school.
Troy was not permitted to attend his mother’s funeral. Instead, he wrote a goodbye letter, which a poised, stoic De’Jaun read aloud to a packed Savannah church at the funeral:
“To my dearest Mama,
Who would have thought this would be the last letter between us? I feared this day would come before I came home to you…. All these years I’ve refused to cry but you, my mother, sure made me cry a river the day you close your eyes. All I know is that I will walk out here a Free Man very soon and keep the family strong just like you would expect me to…”
Davis’s advocates do not expect him to walk out of prison in the immediate future. They are focused, first and foremost, on preventing the impending execution. The sympathy delay granted by the Chatham County DA could be short lived. Once an execution date is set, the final line of defense between Davis and death lies with the Georgia Board of Pardons & Parole, who have the power to grant Davis clemency.
Amnesty USA, the NAACP and the ACLU have banded together again, calling on legal professionals, religious leaders and concerned individuals to send a strong message to the Board of Pardons & Parole: when there’s doubt, don’t execute.
Martina was always central to the advocacy efforts. She spent years struggling to expose her brother’s case until finally, human rights groups, and eventually, the media, began to pay attention. De’Jaun, now a tall young man of nearly 17 years, with close-cropped hair and a wide, easy smile, has grown into an activist in his own right. He has traveled all over the U.S. and to London, speaking about his uncle’s case and advocating against capital punishment.
“There are so many other cases out there like [my uncle’s],” De’Jaun says. “My uncle is not the only one going through this type of pain … a lot of people really want someone to hear their case but they don’t have the power and resources. I see myself as an activist, helping people.”
When asked where he gets the inner reserves to handle all that is facing him, De’Jaun speaks about his faith in God. And, he says, he has two chief role models for strength, courage, tenacity, humanity and dignity. His mother, Martina, is one. The other: his Uncle Troy.