Afraid of an innocent man

Imagine what a reporter would learn if they could interview Troy Davis.

By: Marlene Martin
Socialist Worker
Tuesday, April 26, 2011

TROY DAVIS has been on death row in Georgia for nearly 20 years. He has faced down three execution dates and, with the U.S. Supreme Court’s rejection of his latest appeal, and could face a fourth any day in the coming weeks and months.

Over all these years, Troy has steadfastly maintained that he is an innocent man–but he has never been allowed to tell his side of the story to the media. Every request to film or interview Troy at the prison where he awaits death near Jackson–even, for example, from the celebrated news program 60 Minutes, which has been trying for years to get approval– has been denied by the Georgia Department of Corrections.

Why? What are the authorities afraid Troy would say? Are they afraid that people who heard him speak might come to agree more with Troy than with the judges and prosecutors and police who put him on death row?

These are questions that Troy’s supporters and opponents of the death penalty would like answered as we organize the campaign to save Troy from another threat on his life by the state of Georgia.

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WHAT WOULD the media hear if they could visit Troy and interview him?

Surely the first thing they would want to know is what happened in the early morning hours of August 19, 1989, when a 27-year-old white police officer, Mark Allen MacPhail, was killed in a parking lot near a Burger King restaurant in Savannah, Ga. MacPhail was off duty, working a second job as a security guard.

Troy would explain that he was with some friends when he saw Sylvester “Redd” Coles arguing with a homeless man in the Burger King parking lot. MacPhail later ran to the aid of the homeless man as he was being pistol-whipped–he was shot twice and died a short time later. This is the murder that Troy was convicted and sent to death row for.

Troy would point out in his interview, as he has many times in discussions with his supporters, that no physical evidence linked him to the killing–no gun, no DNA, no fingerprints. The chief evidence against Troy was nine witnesses who were lined up by police to testify that they saw Troy commit the crime. But since the trial, seven of these nine witnesses have recanted their testimony–and as for the remaining two, one has given conflicting statements, and the other is Sylvester Coles, who was initially a suspect in the shooting.

Troy’s supporters around the world have highlighted these recantations as evidence of his innocence, so the reporter would probably know about that. But they might be surprised to learn that police were led to Troy by an initial suspect.

Coles went to the police the day after the killing, accompanied by a lawyer. He neglected to say that he owned a gun of the same caliber that killed MacPhail–Coles later admitted that he was carrying a .38 caliber gun half an hour before the shooting, but he says he threw it in some bushes, and it has never been recovered.

What Coles did was identify Troy as the shooter. The frenzy to find the man who killed MacPhail–a while police officer shot by a Black man, according to witnesses–was at a fever pitch. One officer told a reporter at the time, “There is a desire among the police to have the suspect locked away before MacPhail is buried.” As a Savannah lawyer said, the atmosphere was such that “any Black man will do.”

After Cole’s interview with police, Troy became that “any Black man.” Wanted posters featuring Troy’s picture were put up around Savannah before police conducted a lineup with any witnesses to the shooting. Troy and his family learned that he was a suspect when it came on the news. He decided to turn himself in, hoping that the situation could be straightened out if he told them the truth. He has been behind bars ever since.

The reporter interviewing Troy would know that the witness recantations were at the center an evidentiary hearing held last year in a Georgia court–on the orders of the U.S. Supreme Court, which made a very unusual ruling on one of Troy’s appeal that he must be able to present evidence of his innocence.

If the reporter researched that hearing, they would know that the witnesses said they were threatened by police to implicate Troy. Daryl Collins, for example, was only 16 at the time of the trial–he said that he fingered Troy because police told him he would be charged as an accomplice if he didn’t. Kevin McQueen testified that he received a sentencing reduction to claim that Troy confessed to the killing. When prosecutors cross-examined him, McQueen stated, “No matter how many times you come at me, the man did not tell me anything about shooting anyone. Period.”

At the hearing, three new witnesses said that Coles had admitted to the killing, and one more, Benjamin Gordon, said he actually saw Coles commit the murder.

But Judge William T. Moore dismissed this evidence and ruled against Troy’s claim of innocence. Though he admitted the case against Troy was not “ironclad,” Moore said that the evidence put forward by Troy’s lawyers was largely “smoke and mirrors.”

The reporter might express surprise at this conclusion and wonder whether that shouldn’t be something for a jury to decide at a new trial. But Troy would point out that the ruling, while disappointing, isn’t surprising–especially since the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act signed by Bill Clinton in 1996 sets the bar so high for prisoners to prove their innocence based on new evidence.

Troy might tell the reporter what he told the Campaign to End the Death Penalty (CEDP) in an interview by mail last year:

This denial should prove to the American people and others around the world that for poor and middle-class citizens, there is no justice. Those placed in charge of our rights would rather deny justice than admit the justice system is flawed. They’ll protect the system and ignore 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.

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ANY REPORTER interviewing Troy today would know that his case is known the world over, and that he has countless supporters hoping to see him win justice. That’s the result of a campaign led by Troy’s sister, Martina Correia, even as she fights for her own life, battling breast cancer.

With the U.S. Supreme Court decision last month not to hear Troy’s appeal of Judge Moore’s decision, those supporters are turning their efforts toward persuading the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles and Republican Gov. Nathan Deal to grant clemency for Troy. This would mean a life sentence, with or without the possibility of parole, for Troy, but at least his life would be spared while the struggle to free him continues.

Organizations like the CEDP, Amnesty International, the NAACP and many others have worked hard to build pressure to save Troy, but we need to make sure his supporters are reactivated and motivated again, as the threat of a new execution date looms.

What else would a reporter learn from visiting Troy Davis? They would find out that he is deeply saddened by the recent sudden death of his mother, who has been a staunch defender. They might find out that the guards at the prison like and support Troy, and that one of them quit rather than help with Troy’s execution.

They would learn that Troy is no less determined to keep up the struggle, not only for himself, but for all those facing the death penalty system. He might say something like this statement he made to the CEDP’s convention in 2009:

I want you to know that the trauma placed on me and my family as I have faced execution and the death chamber three times is more punishment that most can bear. Yet as I face this state-sanctioned terror, I realize one constant–my faith is unwavering, the love of my family and friends is massive, and the fight for justice and against injustice by activists worldwide has ignited a fire that is raging for human rights and human dignity…We must dismantle this unjust system, city by city, state by state, and country by country.

NAACP Executive Director Ben Jealous visited Troy in 2009 and came away totally convinced of Troy’s innocence–and inspired by Troy’s “humble courage through an excruciating ordeal.”

Millions more people would no doubt think the same if they could hear Troy speak the truth in an interview with 60 Minutes or some other mainstream media outlet. That’s what Georgia authorities are afraid of–that this injustice they are responsible for would be exposed for all to see.

With Troy facing a renewed threat of execution, it’s up to his supporters to make sure the truth gets told.

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