No justice yet for an innocent man

August 30, 2010

A federal judge has rejected the overwhelming evidence that Georgia death row prisoner Troy Davis is an innocent man, reports Nicole Colson.

ON AUGUST 24, a federal judge in Savannah, Ga., ruled against Troy Davis' claims that he is innocent of the 1989 murder of off-duty police officer Mark Allen MacPhail.

The decision came nearly a year after the U.S. Supreme Court, in a rare ruling, ordered a judge to review the mountain of evidence showing that Davis did not murder MacPhail--a crime for which he was sentenced to death in 1991.

No murder weapon was ever uncovered, nor was there ever any material evidence connecting Davis to the shooting. Seven out of nine non-police witnesses who initially testified against Davis have since recanted their testimony--and several have said they were coerced by police into making false statements against Davis. One of the prosecution's star witnesses against Davis, Sylvester "Red" Coles, has since been identified by other eyewitnesses as the actual shooter.

But after hearing two days of testimony in June--including from witnesses who said they lied at Davis' original trial--U.S. District Judge William T. Moore Jr. dismissed the appeal in a 172-page order.

Supporters take part in a 2009 global day of action demanding justice for Troy Davis
Supporters take part in a 2009 global day of action demanding justice for Troy Davis

"After careful consideration and an in-depth review of 20 years of evidence," wrote Moore, "the Court is left with the firm conviction that while the State's case may not be ironclad, most reasonable jurors would again vote to convict Mr. Davis of Officer MacPhail's murder."

But as Troy's supporters pointed out, Moore seemed determined to explain away any evidence of Troy's innocence.

During the June hearing and in his ruling, for example, Moore criticized Davis' lawyers for calling witnesses who claimed Coles had confessed to the killing of MacPhail, instead of subpoenaing Coles himself.

As Troy Davis' sister and advocate, Martina Correia, explained to Democracy Now following the judge's ruling:

[T]he lawyers actually had a subpoena for Sylvester "Red" Coles, but they have no policing powers, so they can't go on private property and serve a subpoena...And the judge did not give them policing powers, nor did he assign any police to serve the subpoenas that were already issued and ready to be served on Sylvester Coles...So what we had to do was we had to trust that he would come to court.

What you can do

A fact sheet about Troy's case is available online at the Amnesty International Web site. Find out more about Troy's case at the Troy Anthony Davis Web site.

Marlene Martin's "Anatomy of a frameup" in the new issue of the International Socialist Review documents the long history of injustices in Troy's case. Troy's sister, Martina Correia, was interviewed in the New Abolitionist in an article titled "The fight for my brother Troy."

For more information about the fight against the death penalty nationwide, visit the Web site of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty.

In other words, Moore could have made sure Coles received a subpoena, but refused to do so--and then held that against Troy.

AS FOR the original witnesses who testified that they gave false testimony at the original trial, Moore dismissed them, saying only one was credible.

Moore's reaction to the testimony earlier this year was a stark contrast to that of Lawrence Hayes, a former death row prisoner himself and board member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty (CEDP). Hayes traveled to Savannah, Ga., for the hearing to represent the CEDP. As he described:

My original expectation was on the day of the hearing, I would hear several witnesses take the witness stand, recant their testimony and, that process over, await the decision of the hearing judge. But the truth is that what I witnessed on the day of the hearing was simply extraordinary. The combined testimony of the defense witnesses removed any shadow of doubt that Troy Anthony Davis is innocent of the crime for which he stands convicted and, at the very least, is entitled to a new trial.

"When I was first approached by the police, I told them I could barely recognize the shooter," Atwan Williams said on the stand. "I was scared and nervous." Atwan also signed a statement alleging Troy's guilt. The problem is Atwan can't read. He couldn't even read the typed statement he signed 20 years ago when the defense counsel handed it to him at the hearing.

"When the police arrived, I told them I could barely recognize the shooter," said Williams. "I was scared, nervous, I was just trying to take off." Asked if he had read back the deposition he gave to police, Williams replied: "No sir, I can't read."

Then there was the testimony of Jeffrey Sapp, who stated that when he was questioned, he had several angry Savannah police officers surrounding him. As for his original testimony against Troy, he stated, "I was saying the same thing they told me to say." Kevin McQueen told the court he had been given a lighter sentence in return for simply making up the details of a confession he claimed Davis had given him. "I was mad at him," he said.

All the recantation witnesses' testimonies were direct, clear, unshakable and, most important, believable. For me, it was the character and presentation of these witnesses that made the credibility of the next line of witnesses plausible. These witnesses provided eyewitness and circumstantial evidence that points to another man (Sylvester "Red" Coles) as the likely killer of the police officer--the crime for which Troy Davis has been sitting on Georgia's death row for the past 20 years.

The one recantation that Moore said was credible was McQueen's. But even that wasn't enough for the judge, who wrote in his ruling that McQueen's trial testimony was so obviously made up that it should have been obvious at the original trial that he was lying--so his recantation didn't really hurt the state's case.

Of course, that raises the question: Why was it okay for prosecutors to put a witness on the stand in the original trial if he was so obviously lying?

Moore's ruling is a blow to Troy, his family and the growing ranks of his supporters, both in the U.S. and internationally.

Highlighting many of the worst aspects of the U.S. justice system when it comes to death penalty cases, Troy has won support not only from numerous anti-death penalty groups like the CEDP, but from Amnesty International, the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union; prominent individuals including Archbishop Desmond Tutu and singer Harry Belafonte; and thousands of others who have participated in protests, petitions and days of actions to keep an innocent man from being executed.

These supporters are vowing to continue the fight to save Troy's life, and will continue organizing as Troy's lawyers appeal Judge Moore's ruling to either the U.S. Supreme Court or to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

"It seems that Southern-style justice is alive and well in Georgia," said Marlene Martin of the CEDP. "A Black man might be sitting in the White House, but that doesn't mean a Black man will be treated fairly in our court system--and this ruling is proof of it. But this fight is not over. Troy's lawyers are busy working on his legal strategy--social justice activists need to come together and raise our voices about this outrage."

As Martina Correia told Democracy Now, "[W]e feel that Troy is innocent, and we're going to keep fighting until we can prove that. And we're not going to stop fighting for his life."

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