Troy Davis and the Politics of Death

By Amy Goodman
Truth Dig

Death brings cheers these days in America. In the most recent Republican presidential debate in Tampa, Fla., when CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked, hypothetically, if a man who chose to carry no medical insurance, then was stricken with a grave illness, should be left to die, cheers of “Yeah!” filled the hall. When, in the prior debate, Gov. Rick Perry was asked about his enthusiastic use of the death penalty in Texas, the crowd erupted into sustained applause and cheers. The reaction from the audience prompted debate moderator Brian Williams of NBC News to follow up with the question, “What do you make of that dynamic that just happened here, the mention of the execution of 234 people drew applause?”

That “dynamic” is why challenging the death sentence to be carried out against Troy Davis by the state of Georgia on Sept. 21 is so important. Davis has been on Georgia’s death row for close to 20 years after being convicted of killing off-duty police officer Mark MacPhail in Savannah. Since his conviction, seven of the nine nonpolice witnesses have recanted their testimony, alleging police coercion and intimidation in obtaining the testimony. There is no physical evidence linking Davis to the murder.

Last March, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Davis should receive an evidentiary hearing, to make his case for innocence. Several witnesses have identified one of the remaining witnesses who has not recanted, Sylvester “Redd” Coles, as the shooter. U.S. District Judge William T. Moore Jr. refused, on a technicality, to allow the testimony of witnesses who claimed that, after Davis had been convicted, Coles admitted to shooting MacPhail. In his August court order, Moore summarized, “Mr. Davis is not innocent.”

One of the jurors, Brenda Forrest, disagrees. She told CNN in 2009, recalling the trial of Davis, “All of the witnesses—they were able to ID him as the person who actually did it.” Since the seven witnesses recanted, she says: “If I knew then what I know now, Troy Davis would not be on death row. The verdict would be not guilty.”

Troy Davis has three major strikes against him. First, he is an African-American man. Second, he was charged with killing a white police officer. And third, he is in Georgia.

More than a century ago, the legendary muckraking journalist Ida B. Wells risked her life when she began reporting on the epidemic of lynchings in the Deep South. She published “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases” in 1892 and followed up with “The Red Record” in 1895, detailing hundreds of lynchings. She wrote: “In Brooks County, Ga., Dec. 23, while this Christian country was preparing for Christmas celebration, seven Negroes were lynched in twenty-four hours because they refused, or were unable to tell the whereabouts of a colored man named Pike, who killed a white man … Georgia heads the list of lynching states.”

The planned execution of Davis will not be at the hands of an unruly mob, but in the sterile, fluorescently lit confines of Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Butts County, near the town of Jackson.

The state doesn’t intend to hang Troy Davis from a tree with a rope or a chain, to hang, as Billie Holiday sang, like a strange fruit: “Southern trees bear a strange fruit/Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/Black body swinging in the Southern breeze/Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” The state of Georgia, unless its Board of Pardons and Paroles intervenes, will administer a lethal dose of pentobarbital. Georgia is using this new execution drug because the federal Drug Enforcement Administration seized its supply of sodium thiopental last March, accusing the state of illegally importing the poison.

“This is our justice system at its very worst,” said Ben Jealous, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Amnesty International has called on the State Board of Pardons and Paroles to commute Davis’ sentence. “The Board stayed Davis’ execution in 2007, stating that capital punishment was not an option when doubts about guilt remained,” said Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA. “Since then two more execution dates have come and gone, and there is still little clarity, much less proof, that Davis committed any crime. Amnesty International respectfully asks the Board to commute Davis’ sentence to life and prevent Georgia from making a catastrophic mistake.”

But it’s not just the human rights groups the parole board should listen to. Pope Benedict XVI and Nobel Peace Prize laureates President Jimmy Carter and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, among others, also have called for clemency. Or the board can listen to mobs who cheer for death.

Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.

Amy Goodman is the host of “Democracy Now!,” a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 900 stations in North America. She is the author of “Breaking the Sound Barrier,” recently released in paperback and now a New York Times best-seller.

To learn more about this case or take action go herehere, or here.

3 responses to “Troy Davis and the Politics of Death

  1. Former FBI Director William S Sessions is calling on the state of Georgia to halt the execution of death row inmate Troy Davis.

    By William S. Sessions
    Atlanta Journal-Constitution

    As Troy Davis faces his fourth execution date on Sept. 21, many may assume that lingering doubts about the case have been resolved. This is far from true, and the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles — which has several new members since the Davis case last crossed its desks — has the daunting task of reviewing one of the most controversial cases the state has ever seen.

    What quickly will become apparent is that serious questions about Davis’ guilt, highlighted by witness recantations, allegations of police coercion and a lack of relevant physical evidence, continue to plague his conviction. Last summer, an extraordinary hearing ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court to answer these questions instead left us with more doubt.

    At Davis’ evidentiary hearing, witnesses called by Davis recanted trial testimony and made allegations of police pressure. Others testified that an alternative suspect had confessed to them that he committed the crime. One eyewitness testified, for the first time, that he saw this other suspect, a relative of his, commit the crime. Police witnesses for the state of Georgia alternatively asserted that the original trial testimony was the true version of events and that it was elicited without coercion.

    Some of these same witnesses also had testified at Davis’ trial but have since recanted their trial testimony. The judge at the evidentiary hearing found their recantations to be unreliable and, therefore, found Davis was unable to “clearly establish” his innocence. The problem is that the testimony of these same witnesses, whom the judge had determined were less believable, had been essential to the original conviction and death sentence.

    What the hearing demonstrated most conclusively was that the evidence in this case — consisting almost entirely of conflicting stories, testimonies and statements — is inadequate to the task of convincingly establishing either Davis’ guilt or his innocence. Without DNA or other forms of physical or scientific evidence that can be objectively measured and tested, it is possible that doubts about guilt in this case will never be resolved.

    However, when it comes to the sentence of death, there should be no room for doubt. I believe there is no more serious crime than the murder of a law enforcement officer who was putting his or her life on the line to protect innocent bystanders. However, justice is not done for Officer Mark Allen MacPhail Sr. if the wrong man is punished.

    In 2007, the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles issued a stay of execution for Davis and took the admirable position that it would “not allow an execution to proceed in this State unless and until its members are convinced that there is no doubt as to the guilt of the accused.”

    Because this case continues to be permeated by doubt, the Board of Pardons and Paroles’ stance continues to be the right one. In reality, there will always be cases, including capital cases, in which doubts about guilt cannot be erased to an acceptable level of certainty. The Davis case is one of these, and it is for cases like this that executive clemency exists.

    Those responsible for clemency play a vital role in ensuring our legal system includes a measure of compassion and humanity. The death penalty should not be carried out, and Davis’ sentence should be commuted to life.

    William S. Sessions is the former director of the FBI, a former federal judge and federal prosecutor.

    Per RT:

    Davis was convicted of the murder of a Savannah, GA police officer back in 1991 and was recommended for execution by jury. Since that trial, however, seven of the nine witnesses called by the prosecution have either taken back their testimonies or altered their stories. Coupled with the lack of a murder weapon and physical evidence linking Davis to the crime, activists have long protested his persecution and continue to rally for his innocence.

    It’s been a long two decades for Davis on death row, and with the execution slated to occur in mere days, activists have stepped up to speak about his innocence. Along with Pope Benedict XVI and former President Jimmy Carter, Sessions is the latest of high-profile personalities to speak up for Davis’ freedom.

    “Serious questions about Mr. Davis’ guilt, highlighted by witness recantations, allegations of police coercion and a lack of relevant physical evidence, continue to plague his conviction,” Sessions writes in an editorial published to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Thursday. He adds that “pervasive, persistent doubts” exist regarding the supposed guilt of Davis, and that the execution, scheduled for September 21 at 7 pm, should be stopped.

    Sessions served Director of the FBI under Presidents Ronald Regan, George HW Bush and Bill Clinton.
    Activist Deirdre O’Connor has joined the ranks of Carter, Sessions and the rest in her support of Davis.
    Speaking to RT earlier this year, O’Connor said the case is an example of the court system searching out for a guilty party at all costs, regardless of innocence.

    “It becomes less about who did it and less about the search for truth, and more about holding someone accountable,” O’Connor said to RT. She added that “because people of African descent and minorities and people who don’t have money are treated as expendable, it doesn’t matter if we get to the truth.”

    More than 100 events are slated to take place internationally on Friday of this week as activists gather across the world to rally in support of Davis. More than a thousand are expected to attend a march in Atlanta, GA led by the NAACP, CBS News reports.

  2. Has anyone mentioned the matter to Nobel Peace laureate President Barack Obama?

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