Case brings death penalty into question again

Sarah Blaskey, Clarion Staff Writer

Despite solid proof of innocence, Georgia prisoner Troy Davis faces death by lethal injection once again. His case, shrouded in racism and lies, is one of the clearest examples of the flaws in the death penalty system.

Davis has faced death sentences on three different occasions previous to this one. Each time, activists were able to save his life through petitions, vigils and other methods of pressuring the institutions that control Davis’s fate.

“Troy has a lot of support,” said Marlene Martin, board member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. “Anybody that visits Troy comes out and says that ‘there is no doubt in my mind that this man is innocent.’”

Now Davis’s fourth death warrant has been signed, just months after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal. His execution is set for 7 p.m. on Sept. 21. With all of his legal appeals exhausted, Davis’ only hope is a clemency hearing to be held by the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles on Sept. 19.

Convicted of murdering off-duty police officer Mark MacPhail in 1989, Davis has spent more than 20 years in prison. As there was no DNA evidence linking Davis to the crime, nor was a murder weapon ever found, the conviction was primarily based on nine eyewitness accounts. Since the trial, seven of the nine witnesses have recanted their statements, in many cases claiming that they were coerced by the police into identifying Davis as the murderer.

One of the two eyewitnesses who did not recant his testimony is Sylvester “Red” Coles, a man who has been identified by several witnesses as the actual shooter. It was Coles who originally accused Davis of the murder in 1989. Yet it was Coles, not Davis, who was reported to have been in possession of a .38-caliber gun (the same model as the murder weapon) just minutes before the shooting.

However, the media sensationalized the murder of the white police officer, father of two, at the hands of a black man.  So despite the lack of evidence, Davis’ conviction came with a degree popular support.  One officer told a reporter at the time, “there is a desire among the police to have the suspect locked away before McPhail is buried.”  Amnesty UK’s Kim Manning-Cooper said that it was as if “any black man would do.”

Racial and class-based inequalities are at the heart of our criminal injustice system.  Significant evidence of racial disparities in charging, sentencing and imposition of the death penalty was found in a 1990 study conducted by the U.S. General Accounting Office.

According to Amnesty International, “African-American defendants receive the death penalty at three times the rate of white defendants in cases where the victims are white.”  Also, all-white juries are still common in many places.

“Another way that we see race and class affect the death penalty is that more often African-Americans are less able to pay for their own lawyers,” Martin explained. This was the case with Davis for many years.  “The other way it comes into affect is that almost all prosecutors in this country are white.  It’s up to the prosecutor’s sole discretion as to what charges to bring against the defendant.”

Davis’ case is definitely not unique, nor is it even really unusual. Since 1973, more than 130 people have been released from death rows nationally due to evidence of wrongful convictions according to Amnesty International.

“This is the reason we need to get rid of the death penalty in the country,” Martin said. “It looms over us and you can’t push it off even though there is all of this evidence of innocence.“

Political pressure is one of the primary reasons Davis, and those in similar situations, are continually denied justice despite mounting evidence of innocence. It is the reason a jury has never been able to hear the recanted eyewitness testimonies, and also the reason no reporters are allowed to interview Davis. It would be a public relations nightmare to admit that not only is Davis innocent, but the police played an active role in fabricating evidence for his conviction.

“Those placed in charge of our rights would rather deny justice than admit the justice system is flawed,” Davis wrote in a letter to the Campaign to End the Death Penalty.

“They’ll protect the system and ignore the clear-cut coercion before making a ruling that would force a change to death penalty laws and the laws that keep an innocent man like myself and others from walking free.”

We have just over a week to save an innocent man. Get everyone you know to contact the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles and voice their support for this cause.

It is up to us to demand that clemency be granted to Davis. An international day of action is being called by a coalition of anti-death penalty organizations on Friday, Sept. 16.

It is time to come together and stand up against criminal injustice and racism.  It is time to save Troy Davis’ life.

To contact the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles, call 404-656-5651, e-mail [email protected] and fax 404-651-8502.  For more information about the Campaign to End the Death Penalty visit