Jones: Executing Troy Anthony Davis

Debates about the death penalty often take place in the abstract: Is the state justified in depriving life from someone who has robbed it from someone else? Though these debates have their place, by themselves they prove woefully inadequate when making policy decisions. To justify the death penalty as public policy, one must be able to justify some form of it in actual practice — along with its inevitable imperfections.

When we look at the practice of the death penalty, what we find is nothing short of appalling. Troy Anthony Davis’ nightmarish odyssey through the criminal justice system serves as a case in point.

Davis sits on Georgia’s death row for the murder of an off-duty police officer. Since being sentenced to death in 1991, new developments have unfolded in his case that cast significant doubts on his conviction. Specifically, seven out of nine non-police witnesses have recanted their testimonies against Davis, with some coming forward with allegations of police coercion. This new evidence significantly weakens the prosecution’s original case, which was unable to produce any physical evidence linking Davis to the murder. At the very least, we can say that it is well within the bounds of reason to question Davis’ guilt.

So what has been the response of the justice system to these new developments? It would seem that a retrial should be in order for Davis. Instead, the courts at both the state and federal level have blocked Davis’ attempts to present his case anew in court. The most recent setback came this past March, when the Georgia Supreme Court ruled 4-3 against Davis, on the rationale that it preferred the old testimony to the new. Apparently, coerced evidence has unique authority in the eyes of the justices.

Now an execution date for Sept. 23 is inexorably bearing down upon Davis. Though a last-minute stay saved Davis’ life in July 2007, there is no guarantee that he will be so lucky this time.

Davis’ plight puts to rest the myth that the death penalty is reserved for only the most heinous criminals, those whose guilt is beyond question. Throughout U.S. history, the death penalty has been subject to error and downright abuse. Going back to the 19th century, we come across the account of the Boorn brothers, who were about to be hanged for the murder of Russell Colvin when Colvin showed up at the execution. During the Jim Crow era, oftentimes little distinguished a state execution from a lynching, as authorities would wrap up the trial, sentencing, and hanging of black defendants within a single day. And as late as the 1950s, white juries in the South were sending blacks to death row for thefts of only a few dollars.

The problems continue to this day. DNA testing and investigative reporting have revealed that a host of individuals on death row do not belong there. In Louisiana, an investigation led to the exoneration of over 25 percent of the state’s death row population. Across the country, the total number of exonerations since 1973 has reached 129.

Some say that the recent flurry of exonerations is a sign that the system works. They forget, however, that the same tools helping to exonerate prisoners on death row have also demonstrated the innocence of individuals already executed.

Further tweaking of death-penalty statutes by courts and legislatures will not bring an end to these irrevocable errors. It is folly to believe that a “foolproof” system of capital punishment is possible, as Mitt Romney once pushed for as governor of Massachusetts. Human errors are inevitable in government, as with all human institutions.

Given government’s fallibility, it follows that certain powers should remain outside of its hands. The power to execute, which provides no benefit to society in terms of cost or security, certainly falls in this category. The stakes are simply too high, the consequences of error too great, to justify the continued use of capital punishment.

As long as the death penalty remains in place, individuals like Troy Anthony Davis will find their lives unjustly put in jeopardy. Enough is enough.

Ben Jones is a graduate student in the Political Science Department. Contact him at benjamin.jones@yale.edu

Comments

  • shauna

    My comment to Mr Jones are there are rare times our court system maybe wrong and often leading to exoneration for the "guilty party". In the case of Troy a Davis you had to be in the court room to hear all the evidence. You too would have to come up with the same conclusion as the jury did- guilty. It is unfortunate that we do not hold accountable the people who willfully commit crimes. Mr. Davis new what the consequences would be and he made a choice that distroyed the MacPhail and Davis families. How unfortunate. It is also a fact that witnesses have a tendency to change their stories after waiting a long time(19 years). They feel guilty or have a change of heart because time has passed and what does it matter now. They do not want to feel responsible for putting a man to death. Let me assure you that for the MacPhail it is still very real. Lives were destroyed by a choice- a poor one at that. Nothing has changed for the MacPhail family; they are still missing a son, a father, a husband, a friend.

  • BTJ

    Dear Shauna,

    We certainly should not forget what the MacPhail family has been through, and should keep them in our thoughts and prayers. It is mistake, however, to view support for Davis as a slap in the face to the MacPhail family. Executing someone who may be innocent would only make matters worse. Think how the family would feel if later someone else confessed to the murder, long after Troy had been executed.

    You say that if we were in the courtroom we would realize that Davis is guilty. But many of the witnesses and jurors who were at the trial are now recognizing flaws that occurred the process. Mistakes in the criminal justice system happen. We shouldn't refuse to admit such mistakes--especially not when someone's life is at stake.

    Lastly, I should say that not just crazy abolitionists are supporting Davis. A broad and diverse coalition has formed in support of his fight. For instance, William Sessions, the former FBI director and a supporter of capital punishment, has urged for clemency in Davis's case.

  • Aditi Narayan

    Shauna,
    Five out of the seven jury members who convicted Troy have since then given sworn statements asking for a retrial. Seven out of nine witnesses have recanted their testimony- an unprecedented event in 100 years. Three people have come forward with affidavits that Coles confessed he killed Officer MacPhail. The Court testimony is available on the Amnesty International document on Troy Davis's website. The latest well researched pieces on the case are by Patrick Rodgers a reporter in Savannah(southmag.com) and Kavita Chhibber(www.kavitachhibber.com). There are several articles in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, the largest paper in the Southeast, that has covered this case and also researched the skewed death penalty in Georgia. I think the best way to understand any case is to do a thorough research and not form your judgment on presumption, and that applies to everything we do in life.
    The MacPhail family indeed lost a son, a husband and a father, but two wrongs don't make a right, and it also does not justify the execution of a man for a crime he may not have committed.

  • Fela

    This information if applied to the Troy Davis case will free him. That is if his attorney[s] are working for him and not against him.

    During this case, at anytime was Mr. Davis informed of his full rights under the constitution, was he ever informed of the facts stated in the decision below, which applie to Troy Davis.

    This statement presented in the case of HERSHAL HALE, Defendant/Petitioner, v. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff/Respondent. District Court Number CR-99-0132MJJ. In this case it is stated that…

    At the onset, “flimsy criminal indictment.” cf. id., is in question marks to show that Defendant Hale’s supporting evidence of proof, in connection with the underlying fictitious, “flimsy criminal indictment,” rests upon the strength and the dignity of the Office of the Presidency of the United States of America, cf. id., because proof of “massive” flimsy criminal indictment[s,]” is furnished on this record by the President of the United States of America. See The Final Days, 1, 261-62 (citation omitted) (1974; 2006) (quoting Oval Office interview that the U.S. Department of Justice, by the President’s own admission, prosecutes “blind” “pawns” with flimsy criminal indictment[s]

    Put cogently, the criminal indictment upon which the court haled the defendant into court is the very beginning, as discussed, supra, is a “flimsy criminal indictment.” Id. Thus, the Court was utterly devoid of subject-matter or in personam jurisdiction in this matter from the very beginning. See Midland Asphalt v. United States, 499 U.S. 794, 802, 109 S. Ct, 1494, 103 L. Ed. 2d 879 (1989) (“Only a defect so fundamental that it causes a grand jury to no longer be a grand jury, or the indictment to no longer be an indictment, gives rise to the constitutional right not to be tried.”).

    The case of See Schlup v. Delo, supra, 513 U.S., at __, 130 L.Ed. 2d, at 834 protects Mr. Davis’s “newly discovered” and newly asserted” claim of “actual and factual innocence.” Id.

    Pawn, v. To deliver personal property in pledge to another in pledge, or as security for a debt or sum borrowed.
    Pawn, n. A bailment of goods to a creditor, as security for some debt or engagement; pledge; deposit of personal property made to a pawnbroker as security for a loan. That sort of bailment where goods or chattels are delivered to another as security to him for money borrowed of him by the bailor. Also the specific chattel delivered to the creditor as a pledge.

    Is Mr. Davis a ward of the court? If so, how and when was he made a ward of the court? Did Mr. Davis enter into every situation, every signed document, willingly, knowingly, intentionally, voluntarily, intelligently. Was Mr. Davis ever advised of his rights as a member of the national citizenry of this country?

    Has this court overridden any U.S. Supreme Court decisions? If yes, does it have the right to do so? Under what jurisdiction is this court operating?

    Remember ~ The practice of Law CAN NOT be licensed by any state/State. Schware v. Board of Examiners, 353 U.S. 238, 239. The "certificate" from the State Supreme Court only authorizes: To practice Law, "in Courts" as a member of the State Judicial Branch of Government. A bar card holder can only represent "wards of the Court". The state bar card is not a license; it is a Union Dues Card of a Professional Association. There is nothing in this decision that states attorneys are working for the good of the public, the national citizenry of this nation.

  • Fela

    It is of the greatest importance that those of us who are actively seeking alternatives to lawyers and the legal system in the U.S., America, federal as well as for the national citizenry of this nation, as it currently exist, are active at putting the entire legal system itself on trial every time the doors of any court are open. Remember, the law is only to be an extension of what each person is allowed to do. “When the law can do what the individual cannot, without that individual being charged with a crime, then we are living in a state of un-lawful law.” ~ Frederic Bastiat

    Accept it no more. Seek alternatives to lawyers, those alternatives are here, have been here, are not taught, are active, and truly work to make law as it should be, easily accessible and applicable to and for everyone, equally.

  • Deirdre O'Connor

    Shauna,

    You are probably right that if any of us served as jurors in the Davis trial back in 1989 and we were presented this emotionally-charged, high-profile case by overzealous prosecutors and an ineffective defense team, we, too, would have found Davis guilty. But the issue isn’t whether the jurors did the best they could with what they were given. The issue is did the jurors have the information they needed to reach the right conclusion?

    This conviction was based primarily on faulty eyewitness identification testimony. There were five eyewitnesses who had never met or seen Troy Davis prior to August 19, 1989 – Dorothy Ferrell, Stephen Sanders, Antione Williams, Harriet Murray, and Larry Young. An objective look at the undisputed facts should cause us all to doubt this verdict.

    Ferrell was standing over 160’ away viewing the sudden unexpected crime as it occurred in a dimly-lit parking lot at one in the morning. She had seconds – mere seconds – to take this all in. Common sense and science tells us that it would be humanly impossible for her to see enough facial detail to accurately identify the shooter. See Loftus, G.R. & Harley, E.M., Why Is It Easier to Identify Someone Close Than Far Away, 12 Psychonomic Bull. & Rev. 43 (2005). And, yet she selected the police suspect. One has to ask why.

    Stephen Sanders was in the front passenger seat of a van parked at the Burger King drive-thru window when the crime occurred. He was in the van with seven other buddies from the military after a night of drinking. That night he could only describe the shooter as “black man in his 20’s.” He candidly admitted that he would NOT be able to ID the shooter. A month after the crime, long after Davis’ arrest, Sanders again states he could not ID the shooter. And, yet 2 years later he waltzes into court and identifies the only man on trial for the murder – Troy Davis. One has to ask why.

    Antione Williams was in a parked car when the crime occurred, getting ready to start his night shift cleaning the restaurant. When he heard shots fired, he did what any reasonable person would do - ducked for cover under the dash of his car! For the next five days, Davis’ picture was displayed in Williams’ place of work. By the time the police conducted “the official ID” Williams had been repeatedly exposed to Davis’ image and no others. Williams was reluctant to identify Davis a few days later, but yielded when pushed by the police. Even so, Williams told the police in 1989 that he was only 60% sure. Tell me, is that an identification or a guess? By the time trial rolled around, Williams seemed more confident. One has to ask why.

    Harriet Murray, a homeless woman, was waiting in the parking lot for her boyfriend Larry Young to return with more beer. Unfortunately, Young ran into Sylvester “Redd” Coles on the way back. Redd started hassling Young for his beer. Young refused. Redd become angry and more determined. “You don’t know me. I’ll shoot you.” (These are the undisputed facts.) Murray told the police that night what happened next. According to her, the man who was hassling Young for his beer and who had just threatened to shoot Young (Redd) reached into his waistband and pulled out a gun. At that point Murray ran for cover. And, yet at trial Murray identified Davis as the shooter. One has to ask why.

    Larry Young was pistol-whipped immediately after Redd’s threats to shoot him. Yes, it is true that Davis and a juvenile Darrell “D.D.” Collins were also in the parking lot. But ALL the witnesses acknowledge that neither Davis nor DD spoke a word to Young; and neither showed any interest in Young’s beer. All witnesses agree that Redd initiated this fight. And, yet Young implicated Davis at trial. One has to ask why.

    Could it be that once Redd Coles had successfully deflected attention away from himself and onto Davis in a self-serving statement to the police the next day that the police were so eager to solve the case that they settled too quickly on the wrong person? Is the notion of heavy-handed police tactics designed to build a case against the prime suspect really that surprising or inherently implausible?

    Could it be that Davis’ lawyers failed him miserably when they did not even interview the vast majority of the witnesses before trial?

    Could it be that each witness’ repeated exposure to Davis’ image before the “official identification” caused them to go along and select the police suspect?

    Could it be that the overzealous prosecution team of Spencer Lawton and David Lock out-lawyered the defense team and manipulated the system through leading questions of every civilian witness they presented? Is the notion that the better lawyer wins regardless of the facts a concept so foreign that we can’t accept it happened here?

    Could it be that it would have made a difference to the jurors if they were informed of the decades of scientific studies that clearly demonstrate that these IDs were faulty and unreliable, that their verdict would have been different?

    Shauna, when you suggest that the recanting witnesses only came forward 19 years later, you are seriously misinformed. There was, in fact, evidence of police coercion and attempts by witnesses to recant BEFORE the trial. DD Collins, a juvenile, tried to explain at trial that the police threatened him with jail if he did not implicate Davis. Ferrell was so guilt-ridden by her perjured testimony that she confessed to the defense team immediately following her trial testimony. Unfortunately, the defense lawyers were not up to the task of saving their innocent client. They made strategic chooses that did not serve their client. Other witnesses came forward starting in 1996, when a new team of lawyers started working on his case.

    Thankfully, the US Supreme Court has the opportunity to review the reliability of the trial evidence. Let’s hope they choose to do so.

    If Troy Davis goes to his death without such examination, justice will not be served. And we will all be worse off for it.

    Deirdre O’Connor, Director
    Innocence Matters
    (former Director, Indigent Criminal Defense Clinic at Emory Law School)

  • MT

    Thank you very much, each of you who have clarified details of Mr. Davis' extremely important case.

    It breaks my heart to read someone's passing judgment on Mr. Davis based on incomplete, inaccurate information. That is exactly what the jurors were made to do, without knowing they were misinformed, and I pray the courts will hear their protests against being so misinformed and grant Mr. Davis a new trial.

    I am also moved by your sincere concern for Officer MacPhail's family. I am convinced that Officer MacPhail would agree with so many of us on the vital importance of fairness for all.

  • Mitchell Lee

    Where are the original trial transcripts posted? They're not on any of the Pro-Davis sites that I can find. Why?

    Why do Pro-Davis campaigners never mention the blood evidence or the shirt changing that Troy did that night. Did troy have any previous convictions as a juvenile?
    Why have their been no new discussions with police and investigators on the web? The FOP website of the area has no doubt about Troy's "Innocence". Why?