Troy Davis Execution in Georgia

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.

About BG

Beryl Gorbman is a writer and private investigator who divides her time between Seattle WA and Merida Yucatan Mexico. She has published two works of fiction, 2012: Deadly Awakening, and Madrugada. They are both available on Amazon and other outlets. Also at Amate Books, and Casa Catherwood in Merida. You can read about them in various articles on this site.
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19 Responses to Troy Davis Execution in Georgia

  1. mexicano says:


    I wonder if you could clarify a few points –

    Is the government that you claim unjustly executed this man in this post the same government in which you had so much faith in your last post?

    Is your your condemnatory use of the word “heathens” and subsequent appeal to God in this post compatible with the praise you had for atheism in your last post (“No one prays, no one calls on God”)?

    Lastly, is the cowardly, untrusting and disappointing Barack Obama in this post the same Barack Obama that people like me have been trying to warn people like you about for so long now?

    Maybe I’m just being stupid, but I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

  2. mexicano says:

    Oh, yes, I almost forgot – is the ‘racism’ which you accused so many of for their criticism of Obama (see your Tea Party post) applicable to you for your criticism of him?

  3. Stan says:

    Thank you for your summary of the case, and giving structure to the horror I felt at the relentless drive to execute this man in the face of such obvious and widely shared doubts. I could scarcely believe some of the things I read about how he was denied an opportunity to live because he could not prove his innocence – apparently a requirement I was unaware of.

    I shared your disappointment when I read that as the time of execution neared, the President’s press secretary stated blandly that, “…it is not appropriate for the President of the United States to weigh in on specific cases like this one, which is a state prosecution.” I had to go and look up the term ‘bully pulpit’ to be sure my understanding of it was correct.

  4. baldwin says:

    ‘gotten his GED’ Gotten?
    Sorry. Just this sentence alone sends me off to not even validate your article…
    I assume you have the right to eliminate grammar critics~ but, oi!
    Will this comment be posted, or not?

    • BG says:

      Oh, I felt so ashamed. Then, I looked it up. Here are a few citations.
      If I were British and/or extremely formal, I would have written it another way, like “had got.” Does anyone actually write that way?
      gotten [ˈgɒtən]
      vb US
      1. (Linguistics / Phonetics & Phonology) a past participle of get
      have gotten (not usually in the infinitive)
      a. to have obtained he had gotten a car for his 21st birthday
      b. to have become I’ve gotten sick of your constant bickering
      Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003
      Is gotten correct grammar?
      In: Grammar [Edit categories] > Wiki Answers > Categories > Literature & Language > English Language > Grammar > Is gotten correct grammar?

      Although the British stopped using the past participle gotten about three hundred years ago, the American colonists and their descendants–especially in New England–still tend to use it.

      Some English teachers have tried to ban its usage to make American English conform to British English, especially during the nineteenth and early twentieth century when there was a movement to purify English. Others are just not used to its use because it is not used in their region and hear it as an error.

      Ultimately, language is convention. If you are writing for a formal audience outside of New England, you might want to use the simple past form got instead. It is like the dictum to never end a sentence with a preposition because that is something some people just will not put–ummm–up with which some people just will not put!


      For example: “Since I last saw you, you have gotten big!”

      Gotten is correct, and very old. In England many people wrongly assume that gotten is a modern Americanism, but the truth is the English more-or-less stopped using it, and have forgotten (!) that they used to use it.
      Here’s what David Crystal says about The gotten/got distinction in
      The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (p.311):
      “Gotten is probably the most distinctive of all the AmE/BrE grammatical
      differences, but British people who try to use it often get it wrong.
      It is not simply an alternative for have got. Gotten is used in such
      contexts as
      They’ve gotten a new boat. (= obtain)
      They’ve gotten interested. (= become)
      He’s gotten off the chair. (= moved)
      But it is not used in the sense of possession (= have). AmE does not
      *I’ve gotten the answer.
      or *I’ve gotten plenty.
      but uses I’ve got as in informal BrE. The availability of gotten
      does however mean that AmE can make such distinctions as the following:
      They’ve got to leave (they must leave) vs
      They’ve gotten to leave (they’ve managed to leave).”
      I’d add that Crystal’s I’ve gotten the answer isn’t starred if it means I have figured out the answer, rather than I have the answer.
      The key is the overlap between the Possessive use of have and the Perfect use of have, plus the fact that one of the senses of get is come to have. If one has come to have a cold, for instance, then one has a cold, and the AmE usage of has got means that one is currently infested, due to the present relevance aspect of the Perfect. This is so common that kids regularly use got without have or even -’ve to mean have, and young kids even think it’s the regular verb for possession, as witness such constructions as He gots new shoes.

      Faced with the overwhelming interpretation of (ha)ve got as simply have, AmE has reinvigorated an old past participle gotten to be used whenever other, non-possessive forms of get are intended.

      If one is simply speaking of the acquisition of something, for instance, rather than the current possession, one says I’ve gotten ….. in AmE since I’ve got implies that one still has it, and therefore focusses on the current Possession rather than the Perfective acquisition. And all of the idiomatic uses of get, like the get-Passive of get married, the Inchoative become/come to be inherent in get tired, the Concessive of get to go that Crystal mentions, etc. use gotten as their participle. Whereas any construction, even an idiomatic one like have to (= must) where one can use have equally well, use got as the participle.

      Weird, but that’s English for you.

    • Kinbote says:


      Isn’t it convenient that Beryl gave you an excuse to ‘be sent off to not even validate her article’ so that you could express your disagreement without having to form a single thought or argument? Too bad it wasn’t even a valid excuse. Now you’re stuck here looking like the self-appointed grammar critic that doesn’t actually understand grammar. Awkward.

  5. Estela says:

    Beryl, Barack Obama COULD NOT have stepped in. In the State of Georgia no one, not even the governor, can grant a stay of execution or a pardon or commute a sentence. Such action must come from the Georgia Parole Board, the Georgia Supreme Court, or the United States Supreme Court. Our President could not have stopped Troy Davis execution even if he had intended to do so.

    • BG says:

      Thanks, I didn’t know that. Still, he could have spoken up.

      • Kinbote says:

        “Thanks, I didn’t know that. Still, he could have spoken up.”

        It’s a good idea to give credit where credit is due (and not give it where it isn’t due,) just as we should not expect the president to do things that he can’t do, or voice his opinion where it isn’t appropriate.

        For this reason, I didn’t thank George W. Bush when Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage during his tenure.

        Similarly, I don’t blame Barack Obama for not interfering in this case. After all, the right wing blames him for enough stuff that has nothing to do with him as it is.

        • BG says:

          This statement is my emotional reaction, not a scientific analysis. Why isn’t it appropriate for the President to voice his opinion on absolutely anything? I don’t expect the President to try to do things he can’t do, but I do think that because of the highly unusual elements of this case, and the obvious need for the courts to give it another look, his opinion would have provided an authoritative reality check.

  6. Julie says:

    I was shocked and horrified that he was killed and the supreme court had a chance and failed even though they entered a stay before, keep doing it when a person’s life is at risk with so much doubt.A very sad day for America. Julie

  7. mario says:

    You are a legal investigator, licensed by the State of Washington and you did not know that Obama could not stay the execution of Troy Davis. Hmmmmm. Musrt not take much to become a legal investigator in Washington.

  8. John says:

    BG: I have got/gotten a headache just from reading the linguistics explanation.

    Baldwin: Did you really mean to use Oi! ( a British punk rock subgenre) or were you exclaiming Oy! (the familiar Yiddish term expressing dismay or exasperation)? Just wondering.

  9. Jane B says:

    Dear Beryl,

    You hit the nail on the absolute head here:

    “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.”

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