Somehow, I managed to miss Troy Davis’ story until this morning, when I was listening to today’s podcast of Democracy Now. I’m a steadfast opponent of the death penalty in any case. But Davis’ story is one of the most enraging and saddening examples of how deeply flawed the judicial system can be.
Troy Davis is on death row in Georgia, where he was convicted in 1991 for the murder of a Savannah police officer. His execution is scheduled for tomorrow (Tuesday) night at 7pm, despite an abundance of evidence of his innocence. The case against him was comprised entirely of witness testimony, which even at the time of the trial contained inconsistencies. Since the trial, seven out of nine of the non-police prosecution witnesses have recanted their testimony. Some of the witness have even stated that they were coerced into giving testimony against Davis. Jared Feuer, Southern Regional Directory of Amnesty International, said this in his interview on Democracy Now!:
You know, what we have to talk about when we discuss the witnesses is that in some cases they were sixteen years old. They had a number of children. Some of them did have prior records. And they were told that if you do not tell us what we want to hear, you will be going away to jail, or we will actually be fingering you. And the witnesses were scared out of their minds. I mean, they had a number of police who would, you know, arrive at their house and tell them, “You sign this, or you’re going to go to jail.” One of the witnesses was given a signed statement, and he can’t even read.
Only two of the non-police witnesses have not recanted: a witness who said they could not identify the shooter, only the clothing they wore; and Sylvester Coles, the original suspect in the shooting, whose testimony swung the police’s case against Davis.
So, from the get go, Davis’ situation looked grim. As Feuer says, “there was an officer who was down, and the police really wanted to make sure that they got their suspect.” Such tales are as old as american racism itself: a white person is killed, especially a white cop, and “justice” must be had, even if it comes at the expense of an innocent young Black man. Amy Goodman gives this related statistic from the American Bar Association: “Among all homicides with known suspects, those suspected of killing whites are 4.56 times as likely to be sentenced to death as those who are suspected of killing blacks.”
Davis wound up being convicted and sentenced to death; the appeals process up to the state level was unsuccessful, at times because of “procedural defaults” that prevented the defense from introducing new witness statements. One of Davis’ final avenues – turning to the federal appeals court – was closed off to him in 1996 with the signing of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. This law, passed by the Republican-controlled Congress and signed by President Clinton not long after the Oklahoma City bombings, severely limits the ability of federal appeals courts to consider cases like these.
Earlier, in 1995, Congress voted to eliminate federal funding for legal organizations which provide legal assistance to death row prisoners, hobbling these organizations to help those inmates with the fewest resources.
Indeed, it looks like the government has been doing more and more to ensure that “justice” be served by executing people as quickly as possible, wrongful convictions be damned. As Feuer put it, “we have a death penalty system in this country that favors expediency over getting it right.” Read that over a few times. Let the awful truth of that sink in. Because this is the ultimate punishment; get something wrong here, and the mistake is irreversible.
Troy Davis’ lawyers appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court in late June to try, one last time, to convince a court to stay the order of execution and reopen the case. The Supreme Court declined. Now, Davis’ only recourse is the Georgia Board of Clemency, which can exonerate him, grant a stay of execution (and possibly a new trial), or allow the execution to take place. Davis’ clemency hearings began at 9am this morning; the clemency board has until 3pm tomorrow (just four hours before the time set for his execution) to make their decision. I encourage everyone to take a few moments to visit the Amnesty International page and send a fax to the clemency board demanding that they make the only right decision — to save an innocent man’s life.
UPDATE: The clemency board granted Troy Davis a 90-day stay of execution, within which the defense will have one last opportunity to present the case for his innocence. While this in itself is an important and heartening victory, the case can still go either way, so I encourage people to continue to send in faxes, make calls, spread the word and take action. And let’s hope that this case can do much to bring attention and an eventual end to the deeply-flawed and inherently unjust system of capital punishment in this country.
(cross-posted at AngryBrownButch)