by Ben Helford
Those who have been following the news lately are familiar with Troy Davis. After a long-shot, eleventh hour appeal to the Supreme Court on September 23rd, the Supreme Court declined to order a stay of execution. Troy Davis was killed late last Wednesday.
In 1989, in Savannah, Georgia, Mark Macphail, an off-duty police officer, was killed while attempting to stop a scuffle in the parking lot of a Burger King. Later, Sylvester “Red” Coles showed up at a Savannah police station and pointed the finger at Troy Davis. Some evidence indicates that Coles was the shooter, including some witnesses who claim that Coles confessed to them. Police set to work on convicting Davis anyway.
None of the physical evidence put Davis at the Burger King that night. There were nine eyewitnesses, but seven of the witnesses have since recanted. To get these witnesses to identify Davis, the police engaged in severe misconduct. This ranged from threats and outright coercion, to restaging the event in front of four witnesses, to showing witnesses photos of Davis before conducting a lineup including Davis. All of these methods are known to increase the risk of false identifications.
Still, last Tuesday, September 20th, the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles denied clemency to Troy Davis. Their statement in full:
“This morning, the State Board of Pardons and Paroles issued its decision denying clemency for Troy Anthony Davis. The Board members have not taken their responsibility lightly and certainly understand the emotions attached to a death penalty case. Since 2000, the Board has commuted three death penalty cases. In considering clemency in such cases, the Board weighs each case on its own merit. The Board has considered the totality of the information presented in this case and thoroughly deliberated on it, after which the decision was to deny clemency.”
For me, any benefit of the doubt that I would have given to the parole board is eliminated when they condescendingly tells us how they “understand the emotion attached to a death penalty case.” That’s lovely. As if the case to grant clemency to Troy Davis is based on just an emotional aversion to killing.
The news the night of the execution, that the Supreme Court denied a stay, was disappointing, but hardly unexpected.
Paul Campos has a good post detailing the issue, but we were out of legal solutions at this point.
There were no clear problems with the trial at the time (although you can make the argument that no one should be sentenced to death on eye witness testimony alone) and after the conviction, there’s not enough evidence to meet a clear and convincing burden of proof that he is innocent. There was certainly enough evidence that it was irresponsible and cruel for the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles not to give clemency, but that decision is still up to their discretion. What the Troy Davis case says to me is another piece of evidence that capital punishment should be removed. There is simply no way to run the system in a way to ensure we do not kill the innocent.
This is not the only case of an innocent man being killed by the state. Two years ago, The New Yorker published a fantastic investigative report about Cameron Todd Willingham a man who was killed by the State of Texas, despite the fact that the evidence against him was repeatedly debunked as pseudo-science. The evidence was used to prove that he started the fire that killed his wife and twin daughters. And last week, the Supreme Court stayed the execution of Duane
Edward Buck. The Buck case differs, since Buck admits that he did murder his girlfriend and the man he was with. The sentencing in that hearing was marred by a psychiatrist who testified that Buck was more likely to be dangerous thanks to his being black.