I write this article on Tuesday, September 20th with the most recent news that the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles denied Troy Davis’s request for clemency. Davis is still scheduled for execution on Wednesday, September 21st. My hope is that tomorrow evening, this piece will seem like nothing more than an overreaction, an afterthought, a commentary a touch too late because of a change that will spare an innocent man’s life.
The Troy Davis case is one of the best examples of the fallacies in the American justice system to date. In 1989, Mark McPhail, an off-duty cop, responded to an incident at a Savannah Burger King, where a homeless man was being assaulted by Sylvester “Redd” Coles. Coles had pulled a gun on the man and as McPhail arrived at the scene, he was shot. Davis, as well as several other people had been in a nearby lot, unaware of what exactly was happening. When police backup arrived at the scene, it was Coles who first implicated Davis in the murder of McPhail, a charge that had Davis subsequently arrested, convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death, all in 1991.
“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.” Billie Holiday
Seven out of nine witnesses, all of whom have stated in sworn affidavits that police forcibly coerced them into testifying against Davis, have recanted their testimony. Witness Dorothy Ferrell has gone on record saying that she was on parole when she testified and “was afraid that [she]’d be sent back to prison if [she] didn’t agree to cooperate with the authorities.” New witnesses have implicated Coles as the original shooter and he is the remaining one of the two original witnesses who has not recanted his original testimony. There was no murder weapon or physical evidence linking Davis to the murder and the Georgia courts have refused to reexamine the case based on any new evidence presented. Evidence against Davis that the state had provided at one point has now been discredited as only “circumstantial and unreliable” and was thrown out. Yet no action to retry Davis was taken and he remained on death row, waiting to be executed for a crime he did not commit.
“There is no abuse of government power more egregious than executing an innocent man. But that is exactly what may happen if the United States Supreme Court fails to intervene on behalf of Troy Davis,” said Republican Congressman Bob Barr, in an Op-Ed that, while nearly two years old, emphasizes the danger of executing a man on shoddy witness testimonial. What does such a rush to revenge tell us about who we are? About the lives we value? What about how far we have actually come from the days of the Jim Crow South? One does not have to be from the South to look back at the similarities of lynch mobs and Jim Crow “justice,” where the claim of one was all the evidence needed to soothe white mobs into the murder of thousands of black men. The only difference now is the way in which this lynch mob forms.
I was only six when the Troy Davis case happened. Savannah, already fraught with years upon years of racial oppression, had enormous tensions that would burst open during the trial, reopening old, unhealed wounds and causing the slightest interactions to turn into ugly reminders of what the abuse of power looks like. The South, while famous for many things, is most famous for its ability to further manipulate a notoriously corrupt legal system. The southern legal system is just one more part of the deeply sown effects of lingering Jim Crow laws and the racial entitlement that came with them. The outcome of Davis’s case was maddening, as was the convoluted evidence presented against him. His verdict was nothing more than a placebo for the white panic that had overtaken the city, splitting the everyday happenings into moments of “us” versus “them.” In a city where violent crime was a norm and the murder rate was skyrocketing, Davis became the sacrificial lamb whose life needed to be made example of. He became a message to everyone that white was “right” or at least, still in charge. For all the deep love I have of my city and its culture, this case has brought the worst of its faults to the surface, where they cannot escape from all the eyes watching, waiting for the right thing to be done. Yet even with all that was committed in the dark, which now sits exposed within the light of day, justice is still denied. An innocent life still goes unspared. Despite all evidence, Georgia still believes that this decision is the best decision. In my not so many years of living, never have I been as so ashamed of my city as I am now. I cannot call a place that continues to avoid learning from its past a home.
“What do you make of that dynamic that just happened here, the mention of the execution of 234 people drew applause?” Brian Williams on the response to Rick Perry’s embrace of the death penalty and the cheering crowd’s reaction.
“I am utterly shocked and disappointed at the failure of our justice system at all levels to correct a miscarriage of justice,” said Brian Kammer, one of the attorneys that has been by Davis’s side throughout his multiple request for clemency. It is not the first time that Davis has been denied and the Georgia Pardons and Parole Board has acted almost as a revolving door, replacing three members on the five-person board since Davis’s last request. Davis has officially exhausted his appeals and this latest effort was considered to be his last and final chance.
However, the Chatham County DA is still able to intervene and halt the execution of Davis. If this last effort succeeds, one has to wonder how to begin to give back 21 years of a man’s life? How to give back autonomy? Missed birthdays and holidays and watching a family grow? How to begin to make up for all the pain? How to start the conversation that needs to happen? “I’m sorry we convicted you because we needed someone to be guilty? I’m sorry we have continued to be part of a legal system that unfairly targets you? I’m sorry we tried multiple times to kill you? I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry?” “Sorry” isn’t even a consideration here. “Sorry” is useless and “sorry” does nothing but make meek, failed attempts at smoothing over something so inherently wrong that it feels more insulting than genuine.
” …you know, it’s not only–we’re not only fighting for justice for Troy; we’re fighting for justice for the Troy Davises that came before him, for the Troy Davises that are actually going to come after him. And, you know, we just want everyone to know that we just love you. We thank you for all of your support, because, you know, together, this, the justice for Troy, the fight for Troy Davis, has brought a whole new family to us. We have family all over the world, you know, that we can now–you know, we all love you the same and just want to thank God for you and all your support” – Kimberly Davis, Troy Davis’s sister.
In 2008, the poet Laurence H. Ebersole wrote Appeal as part of a support campaign for Davis. Appeal was a quiet piece, a request in the outpouring of letters from the European Union, Ravi Shankar, Jimmy Carter, Harry Belafonte and Desmond Tutu. In so few words, it captured the conflicting moments of anger and hopelessness, defiance and sadness. It speaks volumes more than the attempts I have made here:
What can I say that has not been said, argued in stately manners at rally, legal briefs in courtrooms before judges and executioners. What can I say, the lethal authority of System makes facts into strangers, kills men in warfare and execution, starves families in ghetto-liberty. What can I say, How often silence is like a death — not Death:
Acceptance is a quiet room. Let us hope that this will be very different.