by Beryl Gorbman
Beryl Gorbman is a legal investigator, licensed by the State of Washington.
At 11:08 p.m. on 9/21/11, the State of Georgia executed Troy Davis for murdering a police officer. Davis had been in prison for 22 years and had had three previous stays of execution because there were substantial questions about the validity of his sentence. After the third stay, the agencies working for Georgia prisoners on habeas corpus appeals had their budgets cut 70% and Davis was left with fewer resources to investigate the increasingly cloudy picture of how he was initially convicted.
Troy Davis lived in a middle class area of Savannah Georgia. He had dropped out of high school, gotten his GED and had enlisted with the US Marine Corps at the time of these crimes.
On August 18, 1989, Davis and a friend, Darell Collins went to a pool party and left together. A short while later, they were involved in a drive-by shooting, killing Michael Young, a passenger in another car. Witnesses at the time said Davis did the shooting, but later recanted. Later that evening, bullets from the same gun that killed Michael Young were found at the scene where Davis allegedly killed off-duty officer Mark McPhail, who was heroically protecting Larry Young, a homeless man, from being assaulted by a man named Sylvester “Redd” Coles. Officer McPhail was off duty working an extra job. He was not in uniform. Redd Coles was fighting with Larry Young over a beer. Troy Davis and Darell Collins arrived on the scene. They were acquainted with Redd Coles and joined the fight. The police reports say that Troy Davis shot McPhail twice, once in the chest and once in the head. They also state that Troy Davis shot Larry Young, who survived.
The next day, August 19 1989, Redd Coles voluntarily went to police to tell them that Troy Davis owned a .38 revolver and that he had killed Officer McPhail. That same evening, Troy Davis had gone to Atlanta with his sister.
It was not established that Troy Davis owned a .38, but it was established that Redd Coles did own a .38. (I could be wrong on this, but could not find statements otherwise in my research.)
Although it is not stated officially, it appears that virtually all of the people (except Officer McPhail) who were involved in this tragic series of incidents, were drunk. This includes witnesses as well as those directly involved.
Various witnesses have since come forward stating that Redd Coles killed Officer McPhail. Coles owned a .38 revolver, the type of gun used in the shootings.
The murder weapon was not recovered. I cannot find statements linking Coles’ guns to the bullets found at the scenes and I don’t know whether his gun was recovered (whether it was the murder weapon or not). I also cannot find official statements concluding that Troy Davis owned a gun.
The police searched Troy Davis’ house and did not find a weapon, bloody clothing, or any other forensic evidence. There was no DNA matierial and DNA was not part of the case. He was convicted solely on the basis of testimony from witnesses.
Nine people gave statements saying Troy Davis was responsible for the shooting of officer Mark McPhail. They said that either they saw him shoot the officer or that he had confessed the crime to them later. Since then, seven have recanted in writing. A female witness recently said that Redd Coles admitted to her that he had shot Officer McPhail. She said she had not recanted earlier because she feared retribution from Coles, but that now, she felt the revelation would protect her. Coles confessed to another witness that it was he who had done the shooting, but because Troy Davis had inadequate representation at that point, neither Coles nor the person he talked to were subpoena’d and the statement was thus regarded as hearesay by the prosecution.
Several of the original witnesses now say they were threatened to give the statements by police who were questioning them. They were threatened with incarceration. One man said that because he was illiterate, he couldn’t understand the statement the police pressured him to sign.
On August 20, learning that he had been implicated in the murder(s), Troy Davis returned to Savannah and turned himself in to police. The rest is history.
Troy Davis may or may not have been a nice guy. I don’t know. And he may or may not have been guilty. I don’t know that either. The point is that no one knows. There is massive evidence to support reasonable doubt and that is what is important. In our criminal justice system, conviction for a crime rests on whether there is or isn’t reasonable doubt. And when the case is a capital one, there are legal brakes in place to make sure the decision is reached only with the most disciplined scrutiny. This didn’t happen.
In my experience, eye witnesses are next to worthless as proof of anything, especially when they have been using drugs or alcohol. Drunk and disorganized witnesses should not have been used as the basis for establishing a lack of reasonable doubt in a capital murder case.
Because of the grave doubts surrounding Troy Davis’ convictions, he had three stays of execution over the years, all appeals refused and some obviously tinted (no, not tainted) by racism. When this fourth execution date approached, his case had gathered support both nationally and internationally.
We could have almost expected the objections to Mr. Davis’ execution by Pope Benedict XI, Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter, Al Sharpton, Amesty International, The Archbishop of Atlanta Wilton Gregory, the NAACP and every human rights organizations, hundreds of thousands of students and ordinary folks black and white, The Innocence Project, a phalanx of well-known entertainers, etc.
But what no one expected was an objection to the execution by William Sessions, the former Director of the FBI, or from members of the European Parliament, or from an extraordinary coalition of Deparments of Corrections heads from all over the country. This group included the Superintendant of San Quentin, and heads of prisons in Florida and other states, and the previous Superintendant of the “Georgia Diagnostic Prison,” where Troy Davis’ execution took place two days ago. In their letters, these people, all of whom had had “direct experience with administering the death penalty,” said that too much doubt remained about Troy Davis’ guilt to proceed with the execution. In an interesting angle, they cited the agony of the state employees who had to carry out the killing. They said that every time there is an execution where the prisoner denies his guilt until the end, the employees who must do this unimaginable job, are haunted for the rest of their lives. They said that in this case it simply was unfair to the employees to ask them to do this because there was so much doubt about the inmate’s innocence. That they would never get over it.
This gives new and horrifying meaning to the phrase, “just doing my job.” I imagine that the personnel involved in Wednesday night’s execution are in deep emotional trouble and I feel empathy for them. I also imagine that the current superintendant of the Georgia Diagnostic Prison was glad that letter was written by his colleagues and that he, himself, is….well…I don’t know.
I was surprised by the letter from the DOC people and gratified to hear their public display of human-ness. I was disappointed but not entirely surprised that the right-wing Supreme Court had turned down the eleventh-hour appeal to stay the execution.
But overwhelmingly, I was devastated by the decision of President Barack Obama, who decided not to step in. I see this as a lack of courage. This is the first time I have been disappointed in anything he has done. I no longer feel the trust in him that I did. There was more than ample reason to re-examine this case at the highest level. A man’s life was at stake and he lost it.
This execution was the work of a nation of bloodthirsty racist heathens. We indict foreign regimes that we label murderous and evil. We need to look at ourselves. God help us all.