Charles Thomson

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Strange Fruit Still Falling In The Southern States
The unjust execution of Troy Davis.
September 2011, Huffington Post

At 11.08PM (ET) on Wednesday, September 21st 2011, shockwaves reverberated around the world as it was announced that Troy Davis had been executed in Jackson, Georgia for the murder of police officer Mark MacPhail. Vigils for a last minute reprieve became impromptu wakes in Boston, Washington, New York, Detroit and more than 20 other cities around the United States. There were even demonstrations outside US embassies across Europe.

In 1991, African-American Troy Davis was convicted in a court presided over by a white judge, of the murder of a white policeman. Davis’s conviction was so dubious that in recent years it attracted the attention of Amnesty International, the NAACP, the Innocence Project, the National Action Network,  former president Jimmy Carter and even Pope Benedict XVI.

But despite global criticism and an abundance of evidence undermining his conviction, the US Supreme Court decided on Wednesday evening to kill Troy Davis in the name of American justice. His death has been described, variously, as a travesty, as torture, and as a legalized lynching.

On August 19th 1989, off-duty police officer Mark MacPhail witnessed an assault on a homeless man in a Savannah car park. As he attempted to intervene, MacPhail was shot twice by the homeless man’s attacker. Three days later, Troy Davis was arrested. Two years later he was convicted in the absence of any physical evidence connecting him to the crime. Shortly thereafter, he was sentenced to death.

In 2003 the Atlanta Journal-Constitution began investigating Davis’s conviction. The newspaper published a series of stories in which key witnesses from the 1991 trial recanted their testimony. The prosecution’s case against Davis began to unravel and the global campaign to overturn his conviction was born. The more information that became public, the more unfathomable it seemed that Davis had ever been convicted in the first place.

Nobody at the scene, it transpired, had initially identified Troy Davis as the shooter. The first time Davis’s name came to the attention of police investigating MacPhail’s shooting was when they were approached by a man called Sylvester Coles, who named Davis as the culprit. Since then, nine people have signed affidavits claiming that Coles was the real gunman, including several who say he confessed the crime to them personally.

With no DNA and no murder weapon, police were forced to rely on eyewitness testimony. Unreliable at the best of times, the eyewitness evidence in Troy Davis’s case was tainted from the outset, as police officers seemed to do everything in their power to coerce witnesses into picking Davis out of a photo line-up. Some witnesses were shown Davis’s picture before the line-up began. Then, during the line-up, Davis’s picture was set against a different background to the others. Officers couldn’t have made any clearer which face the witnesses were supposed to pick.

Much of that eyewitness testimony has since been recanted anyway. Besides Sylvester Coles, eight other key witnesses testified in 1991 that Davis was the gunman. To date, seven of those eight witnesses have recanted all or part of their testimony. The eighth won’t comment either way.

Perhaps the most damaging witnesses at Davis’s 1991 trial were three men who claimed Davis had confessed the killing to them. All have since admitted that Davis did no such thing; two in a 2010 federal hearing and all three in signed affidavits.

Jailhouse snitch Kevin McQueen admitted at the 2010 hearing that his testimony had been untrue and wrote in a signed affidavit: “The truth is that Troy never confessed to me or talked to me about the shooting... I made up the confession from information I had heard on T.V. and from other inmates.”

Jeffrey Sapp, who also came clean at the federal hearing, wrote of the police in his affidavit:  “I got tired of them harassing me, and they made it clear that the only way they would leave me alone is if I told them what they wanted to hear. I told them that Troy told me he did it, but it wasn’t true... When it came time for Troy’s trial, the police made it clear to me that I needed to stick to my original statement... I didn’t want to have any more problems with the cops, so I testified against Troy.”

In another signed affidavit, former prosecution witness Monty Holmes wrote, “I told them I didn’t know anything about who shot the officer, but they kept questioning me. I was real young at that time and here they were questioning me about the murder of a police officer like I was in trouble or something. I was scared… [It] seemed like they wouldn’t stop questioning me until I told them what they wanted to hear. So I did. I signed a statement saying that Troy told me that he shot the cop.”

Sapp and Holmes aren’t the only witnesses to claim that officers intimidated them into making false statements. Another, Dorothy Ferrell, signed an affidavit in 2000 saying she’d felt pressured into fingering Davis as the shooter.

She wrote, “From the way the officer was talking, he gave me the impression that I should say that Troy Davis was the one who shot the officer like the other witness had… I also felt like I had to cooperate with the officer because of my being on parole…I told the detective that Troy Davis was the shooter, even though the truth was that I didn’t see who shot the officer.”

Another witness, Darell Collins, signed an affidavit in 2002 claiming that police had threatened to charge him as an accessory if he didn’t testify against Davis: “After a couple of hours of the detectives yelling at me and threatening me, I finally broke down and told them what they wanted to hear... I am not proud for lying at Troy’s trial, but the police had me so messed up that I felt that’s all I could do or else I would go to jail.”

More followed. Larry Young, another former prosecution witness, signed an affidavit saying, “I couldn’t honestly remember what anyone looked like or what different people were wearing. Plus, I had been drinking that day, so I just couldn’t tell who did what. The cops didn’t want to hear that and kept pressing me to give them answers. They made it clear that we weren’t leaving until I told them what they wanted to hear...They put typed papers in my face and told me to sign them. I did sign them without reading them.”

Three more former prosecution witnesses – Robert Grizzard, Michael Cooper and Benjamin Gordon – also signed affidavits saying they were pressured or tricked into signing inaccurate statements. Antoine Williams had a similar story, telling the 2010 federal hearing that he was illiterate and had signed police statements he couldn’t even read.

In total, six witnesses have said that police officers forced them to falsely identify Davis as the killer. At least three of the jurors in Davis’s trial have now expressed doubts about the verdict they reached 20 years ago.

One of them, Brenda Forrest, said in 2009: "If I knew then what I know now, Troy Davis would not be on death row. The verdict would be not guilty."

Davis’s detractors have made much of the claim that bullet casings from the murder matched those from an earlier shooting in which Davis was involved. However, there is no more evidence connecting Davis to the earlier shooting than there is connecting him to the MacPhail shooting. The murder weapon was never recovered and as for the so-called ballistic ‘match', the officer who conducted the analysis testified that he wasn’t even sure the bullets came from the same gun.

In spite of the overwhelming doubt in the Troy Davis case – far beyond what would be considered reasonable if he was put on trial today – the authorities seemed determined in recent weeks to kill him before he could exonerate himself.

In the hours before his scheduled execution on Wednesday, Davis pleaded for a polygraph test to prove his innocence. This request was denied without explanation. The question on many people’s lips is, if the Georgia Department of Corrections was so sure Davis was guilty, why were officials so reluctant to give him a polygraph? What were they afraid of?

To thousands around the world the outward appearance is that Georgia’s Penal authorities, and subsequently the judges of the Supreme Court, were keen to execute Davis before he could be given the opportunity to acquit himself – perhaps owing to the fact that six witnesses now claim that police threatened them into making false statements.

In other words, six key prosecution witnesses now say that police officers framed Davis for the murder. A polygraph proving Davis’s innocence would certainly have raised uncomfortable questions about why he was left in a prison cell for 20 years, waiting to be killed as a result of police corruption.

The overwhelming response to this week’s events has been one of horror, although certain right-wing media outlets spent far more time trumpeting the MacPhail family’s cries for Davis’s blood than they did discussing the actual evidence. The most controversial attack on Davis was leveled by Anne Coulter.

“One Troy Davis flame broiled, please,” Coulter wrote on her twitter feed, later adding, “Hold the pickle, hold the lettuce.”

Unconvincingly describing Davis’s supporters – who include former FBI chief William Sessions and Archbishop Desmond Tutu – as “lovers of cop killers,” Coulter bizarrely claimed that there is “more credible evidence that space aliens have walked among us than that an innocent person has been executed in this country in the past 60 years.”

In reality, there is credible evidence to suggest that dozens of innocent people have been executed in the US in the last 60 years. A study by the Northwestern University School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions found that at least 39 prisoners have been executed despite significant doubts about their guilt. Many in-depth case studies on these wrongful executions can be found on its website.

Besides, what of the many people who have been exonerated before their executions, sometimes with very little time to spare? To date, 273 people in America have been exonerated post-conviction by DNA evidence alone. Some were already dead. Combined, they served 3,524 years in jail for crimes they never committed. 17 had spent time on Death Row. Others have been freed from Death Row on non-DNA related grounds.

More shocking than the statistics regarding exonerees, however, are those about the number of innocent people potentially still languishing in jail for crimes that they didn’t commit.

According to the Innocence Project, which fights to release wrongly-convicted prisoners, since 1989 there have been tens of thousands of cases in which the wrong suspects have been pursued by police and only ruled out by DNA.

Ergo, in cases tried before 1989 or in cases in which there was no DNA to test – such as Troy Davis’s – untold numbers of innocent people, who DNA may have similarly exonerated, could have been sent to jail. In fact, DNA testing is only possible in 5-10% of criminal cases, meaning that in roughly 90% of cases there is a chance that police will pursue the wrong person with no scientific means of ruling them out.

Studies cited by the Innocence Project suggest that between 2.3% and 5% of all prisoners in the US are innocent. Even the bottom end of that estimate – 2.3% – would constitute approximately 45,000 prisoners.

On the evening of September 21st 2011, Troy Davis spent several hours strapped to a table while he waited to hear whether the US Supreme Court would grant him a stay of execution. Almost four hours after the scheduled execution time of 7PM (ET), Davis – along with his family, friends and supporters – received the devastating news that he would indeed be killed.

Asked whether he had any final words, Davis lifted his head and addressed the MacPhail family.

“I did not kill your son, father, brother,” he told them. “I am innocent.”

He urged them to “dig deeper” and “find the real truth.” Then, to the prison workers about to kill him, he said: “May God bless your souls.”

It took roughly 15 minutes to kill Troy Davis and his lawyer Thomas Ruffin described it afterwards as, “Sickening...more horrible than what we see in a movie or on television.”

Local radio journalist John Lewis, who was present at the execution, reported that members of the MacPhail family stared at Davis as he was killed and grinned when he was pronounced dead.

The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth of the gallant South.

On the same night, in Ohio, Lawrence Brewer was executed for the racially motivated murder of African-American James Byrd. In 1998 Brewer tied Byrd to the back of his truck and dragged him to death. Byrd’s family stayed home on Wednesday night and told the press they didn’t want capital punishment for Brewer.

“You can't fight murder with murder," Byrd’s son told Reuters on Tuesday. "I wish the state would take in mind that this isn't what we want."

Addressing the press after Troy Davis’s execution, lawyer Thomas Ruffin said: “What I saw tonight... was indeed a legal lynching. And one thing I want to get clear is, just because it was legal, doesn’t mean it was right. Slavery was legal, but it wasn’t right. Jim Crow segregation was legal, but it wasn’t right. And the killing of innocents such as Troy Anthony Davis, however legal it may be in Georgia, however legal it may be in the eyes of the Supreme Court of the United States, this sort of legalized lynching is not right.”

The phrase ‘legal lynching’ is an apt one, since Davis’s case – like many death row cases – has strong racial overtones. If Troy Davis had been white, or if Mark MacPhail had been black, the execution would most likely have never been ordered. Statistics regarding race and the death penalty in the US are deeply disturbing.

In 2007, a Yale University study on death sentences in Connecticut found that a black defendant convicted of murdering a white victim is three times more likely to be handed the death penalty than a white defendant convicted of murdering a white victim. In the same year, a study sponsored by the American Bar Association found that a third of African-American death row inmates in Philadelphia would not have received the death penalty if they weren’t black. 

A shocking 80% of executions in the US occur in the South, where racism thrives. In Georgia – one of the only states in America to have rejected the Racial Justice Act – black males constitute only 15% of the population, but almost 50% of its Death Row.

In 2007 the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a four part article about the application of the death penalty in Georgia, based on a study of 1,315 cases between 1995 and 2004. One conclusion reached by the report was that a person accused of killing a white victim in Georgia was twice as likely to receive the death penalty as a person accused of killing a black victim. In armed robbery murders, prosecutors sought the death penalty in 14% of cases where the victim was white, but only 1% of cases where the victim was black.

The message is clear: The state of Georgia places a higher value on white life than it does on black life, and on Wednesday 21st September 2011, the appeasement of Mark MacPhail’s relatives was more important to the state of Georgia – and indeed the US Supreme Court – than the life of Troy Davis.

Currently, 102 prisoners sit on Georgia’s Death Row, waiting to be told when they will be killed. Approximately 3,000 more sit on Death Row in other states. Statistically speaking, between 2% and 5% of them are innocent.

How many more Troy Davis’s will there be before America finally stops sowing the seeds of this cruel and bitter crop?

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Charles Thomson - Sky News