Upon learning that the Georgia clemency board for the second time in four years rejected a plea to commute the death sentence of Troy Davis, a man convicted of the 1989 murder of Savannah police officer Mark Allen MacPhail, I began to worry that the new South, the so-called “post-racial south,” was not so different from the old.
Have Americans truly evolved with respect to the capital punishment?
Most of the industrialized world has abolished the death penalty. Yet we hang on to a practice fraught with latent procedural biases that lead to the distinct possibility innocent blood may be shed due to government-ordered retribution.
Barring a stay of execution by the U.S. Supreme Court, Wednesday night Troy Davis will die by lethal injection for MacPhail’s murder.
There will be those who argue that Davis was found guilty by a jury of his peers, based upon the evidence before them.
From a legal standpoint, myriad studies point to the fact that eyewitness testimony is unreliable — notoriously so.
In criminal prosecutions, the state must prove that the defendant was, in fact, the individual who committed the crime. One area in which real-life criminal courtrooms are similar to their counterparts in movies and on television is during direct examinations of essential witnesses, when the prosecutor asks, “Is the person you saw committing the crime in the courtroom today?”
An affirmative answer is followed by a dramatic directive to point out the defendant to the jury.
But we now know that in the Davis case, seven of nine eyewitnesses have since recanted their stories. Perhaps even more chilling, Quiana Glover testified before the clemency board that she overheard an eighth witness, Sylvester “Redd” Coles, while drunk and bragging, admit in 2009 that he, in fact, was MacPhail’s murderer.
What do we do with the knowledge that witnesses who recanted tell a sordid story of an overzealous prosecution bent on having someone pay for an officer’s death?
Does it matter that three jurors have signed affidavits attesting they now doubt the sufficiency of their verdicts based upon the new evidence?
These facts cast serious doubts about the collective wisdom, if not the functionality, of a legal system that considers such new evidence but then will not order a new trial. Simply stated, if Troy Davis did not deserve a new trial, who does?
Troy Davis, a poor black man with few ties to the Georgia ruling elite, now faces the ultimate sentence based upon dubious evidence. His case hearkens back to the age of lynch mobs, when angry crowds often denied the accused due process in their need for vengeance.
For a country at the forefront of industry and innovation, one that many citizens proudly boast was founded on “Christian values,” we regrettably are stuck in a very non-Christian reality — poor people of color stand a higher chance of being executed than those with means and connections.
In her understandable grief, Madison MacPhail, daughter of the deceased, angrily exclaimed, “Troy Davis murdered my father, no questions asked.”
No, Ms. MacPhail, questions must be asked. Questions and DNA evidence have released hundreds of previously condemned prisoners from death rows across America. In every case, a jury had considered evidence and deemed it worthy for the imposition of the ultimate sentence.
The Davis family has been comforted by the support of millions of strangers who signed clemency petitions, including Jimmy Carter, former Georgia Republican Representative Bob Barr, former FBI Chief William Sessions and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Bishop Desmond Tutu.
Their collective cries have gone unanswered today. Should the U.S. Supreme Court decline to stay this execution, Davis’ death could become a seminal event — an injustice that forces our nation, once and for all, to consider whether its public policy on the death penalty will comport with its public failures.