“Why Are You Looking for My Son?” The Day Troy Davis Was Wrongfully Accused of Killing a Police Officer
The following is an adapted excerpt from I Am Troy Davis. Copyright © 2013 by Jen Marlowe and Martina Davis-Correia with Troy Davis. Reprinted with permission of Haymarket Books, Chicago, IL.
Editor's note: On September 21, 2011, Troy Anthony Davis, who maintained his innocence, was executed for the murder of police officer Mark MacPhail. Human rights groups, activists from around the world, and Davis' family and friends fought until the end to save his life. The following excerpt tells the story of the day police singled Davis out as the main suspect in the shooting death of officer Mark MacPhail.
August 19, 1989:
It was after 2 a.m. when Troy finally got home. He shook his head as he climbed into bed. He didn’t know the source of the gunshots he had heard as he was leaving the Greyhound bus station/Burger King parking lot, but whatever had gone down, it was messed up. Mama and Daddy had warned him about hanging out with the wrong crowd and spending time at places like the pool hall across from the bus station. Maybe it was time to start listening to them.
It seemed to Troy that his head had barely hit the pillow when Mama was knocking on the door and calling him to breakfast. He checked the clock. Just before ten. “Five more minutes, Mama,” he groaned, pulling the pillow over his face. Mama would have none of it. “You all get up!” she hollered, knocking more vehemently on his door and the girls’ door. After breakfast, Virginia asked Troy to do the dishes.
“Ma, that’s a girl’s job!” Troy protested. Mama raised her eyebrows. “That’s what your daddy fed to y’all, that men don’t wash dishes. Boys can wash dishes!” Troy pushed his plate away and stood up. “I’ll take the trash out, Mama.” He hoisted the garbage bag onto his shoulder and headed to the front door. “Clean the whole yard while you’re at it, since you won’t do the dishes!” Virginia called after him good-naturedly.
Spending the day cleaning the yard and bathing the puppies had been Troy’s intent anyway, since his morning ride to Atlanta with his cousin Valerie had fallen through. Martina agreed to drive him, but she was hosting a dinner party and could only leave in the late evening. Troy was eager to get to Atlanta to look for some better-paying work than what he had in Savannah, but there was no real rush. He couldn’t ask his cousin Skippy about a job at his construction company until Monday anyway.
At 9 p.m., Virginia, nineteen-year-old Kimberly, and eight-year-old Ebony got in the car and drove Troy to Martina’s apartment just as her guests were leaving. Shortly thereafter, Troy, Martina, and Martina’s husband Louie were on the road to Atlanta and Virginia, Ebony, and Kim were on their way back home to Cloverdale. Louie took a wrong turn on the highway and by the time they arrived in Atlanta, it was too late for Troy to call his cousin Abdus, with whom he would be staying.
“We’ll wait with you until morning,” Martina decided, and Louie found a spot to park so they could try to stretch out in the car to get some sleep. As pink light began to streak the Atlanta sky, Troy tried to extricate his backpack from underneath his sister’s head without waking her.
“You alright?” Martina murmured heavily.
“Yeah, I’m good.”
“You got money? You have Abdus’s phone number?”
Troy climbed out of the car with his backpack, yawning and stretching after the cramped night. Martina and Louie waved goodbye and began the four-hour return journey to Savannah.
The answering machine was blinking twice when Martina and Louie walked inside the apartment. Martina hit play and heard Mama, anxious.
“Tina, call me when you get home.”
The second message was from Mama as well, the panic in her voice heightened.
“Tina, come in here!” Louie called from the living room.
“What?” Martina responded, as she dialed Mama’s number.
“Troy’s on TV!” Louie called to her again, louder.
Martina went into the doorway. “He’s on TV for what?”
“Just come in here!”
Martina sank onto the sofa beside her husband. Why was the television station displaying a photo of her brother wearing the New York Yankees jacket that Louie had given him? Martina could only make out a few disjointed words from the anchor: murdered police officer, Troy Davis wanted dead or alive.
What on earth were they talking about? They must have the wrong Troy. If Troy had been involved in anything, Martina would have sensed it on the drive to Atlanta. Troy would have been apprehensive or jagged. Did that anchor really say dead or alive? Were they going to kill her brother? What was going on?
“Take me to Cloverdale,” she said to Louie. She needed to talk to Mama.
It wasn’t easy to understand what had happened—Mama was more agitated than Martina had ever seen her—but slowly, in bits and pieces, Martina managed to piece together the story.
Virginia had returned to Cloverdale after dropping Troy off at Martina’s, but both entrances to the U-shaped Sylvester Drive were blockaded. Police cars were everywhere, with officers swarming around her red-brick house. Virginia parked her car before the blockade, seeing neighbors peeking from their doorways or windows. “Stay in here until I know what’s going on,” she instructed her daughters.
She got out of the car and approached her neighbor, Craig Young.
“What’s going on? Why do they have the street blocked off?”
“They’re looking for Troy,” Craig told her.
Virginia’s heart skipped a beat. “Looking for Troy for what?”
Craig shrugged. Police and SWAT teams were lying down in the grass, Virginia began to observe, and on her roof, in her backyard, across the street, on her neighbors’ roofs. Rifles were pointed at her house from every direction. Several officers were at her front door, and it appeared as if they were about to kick it down.
Virginia quickly approached an officer at the blockade.
“Why are you looking for my son?”
“Hey!” The policeman called out to the other officers. “I got his mother over here!”
“Why do you want my son?” Virginia pressed. “Why do y’all have all those guns pointed at my house?”
“We have orders to shoot to kill,” the officer said.
“Shoot to kill?” Virginia could feel hysteria rising. “What? He’s not in there! I can open my door and show you he’s not there!”
“We can’t let you enter,” the policeman told her. “We have to go in there and see.”
“I have another son, and I don’t know if he’s home or not,” Virginia said. “I’m going to go in there with you.” What if they saw fifteen-year-old Lester and shot him by mistake?
“No, you can’t go in. If we move anything, we will put it right back.”
What choice did she have? If she didn’t give the police her house key, they would kick down her door. It did not occur to Virginia to ask about a warrant.
“You be careful. Don’t point those things at my younger boy if he’s inside!” Virginia clutched her purse and whispered prayers for ten agonizing minutes before the police officers came out and returned her key.
“He’s not in there,” the policeman said.
Virginia’s fear began to turn to anger. “And if he was, y’all would gun him down like a dog in the street?”
“Ma’am, we’re just looking for him,” the police officer said. “If you know where he’s at, the best thing is to turn him in.”
The SWAT team and police officers piled into their vehicles and pulled away as Virginia ran inside her house, Kimberly and Ebony behind her.
“Lester? You there, baby?”
Thankfully, he wasn’t. Virginia went from room to room, trying to assess what they had done. The board covering the attic door had been pushed back, so they had clearly been inside the attic. Items normally stored under the beds were strewn about and they had taken a pair of shorts out of her washing machine, but nothing else seemed terribly amiss. Then she looked at the living room wall, covered with photos of her children. There was a blank space in the middle of the wall. They had taken a photograph of Troy.
On Sunday morning, after a night filled with tossing and turning, Virginia pulled out the telephone book and started looking through the Yellow Pages to find a lawyer. She came across a name that was familiar to her from television commercials—John Calhoun. Virginia dialed his number with trembling fingers and explained the situation.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” John Calhoun said. “I cannot represent you at this time because I’m already involved in the case.” Virginia did not ask what he meant; she hung up and tried another lawyer, Robert T. Falligant. He agreed to meet with her first thing Monday morning.
Virginia had finished updating Martina on all this when a neighbor slipped inside the house.
“The entire force has got to be in Cloverdale,” the neighbor said. “All the subdivision is under siege. Anybody resembling Troy, any black boy from fifteen to fifty, is getting slammed on the concrete. If the cops catch Troy, Ms. Davis, it’s gonna be a problem.”
The cops were kicking in black folks’ doors, the neighbor reported, threatening young black men that they would lock them up and throw away the key if they didn’t give information about Troy’s whereabouts.
One lady had a developmentally disabled son who slightly resembled Troy. The cops had thrown him up against the wall. “We got Troy Davis!” the cops had called out. “Where’s your identification?”
Martina listened to the neighbor in horror and disbelief. Apparently, this wasn’t just taking place in Cloverdale. There were Troy Davis sightings going on all over town. The police had the black residents of the city terrorized. Racial tensions in Savannah were inflamed.
All Virginia, Martina, and the rest of the family could do now was lock the door and wait until the appointment with Falligant, trying not to let their flooding anxiety overwhelm them. The Savannah news, which they watched against their better judgment, was focused entirely on the manhunt for Troy. Why on earth did they think that Troy had killed that police officer?
Martina snatched the phone before the end of the first ring. “Hello?”
“Hey, it’s me, just wanted to let you know that I’m alright. Abdus and I went around South Atlanta today, looking for places that are hiring. Hey, you got Skippy’s number?”
“Do you know that they’re looking for you for killing a police officer?”
“You can stop playing, you play on the phone too much!”
“Troy, I’m not joking. They have your picture all over TV.”
“What are you talking about?”
Virginia grabbed the phone out of Martina’s hand. “We can’t talk on the phone long because they might have already bugged it.”
“Oh, Mama, I didn’t kill no police officer! Where did it happen?”
“Near the Greyhound bus station. In the Burger King parking lot.”
Troy was silent for a moment. Then: “I’m taking the next bus back to Savannah.”
“Stay where you are, baby, don’t move.”
“I’ll answer their questions and explain to them whatever I know, and then they’ll let me go.”
“No! Lord, if they see you anywhere, then they’re going to kill you . . .”
Virginia was in Robert Falligant’s office by eight o’clock Monday morning. Falligant agreed to represent Troy, provided, of course, that Troy gave his consent—and provided, of course, that Virginia could pay.
The hours and details of Monday and Tuesday passed in a blur. Martina could focus only on how to get Troy back to Savannah safely. Everything else was just a fog.