Troy Davis was supposed to die yesterday. He had been offered — and had refused — his last meal. He had his last meeting with 25 of his friends and family in the morning. He had appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court, and lost. He had appealed to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles, and lost. Basically, he had exhausted all of his options, except one.
That one last resort turned out to be a lot more merciful than most people expected.
Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, Troy Davis will stay alive for at least six more days. Though the state of Georgia planned to execute Davis at 7 p.m. yesterday, the high court issued a rare stay on his execution. Just two hours before Georgia pumped Davis full of chemicals, the U.S. Supreme Court swooped in to take him off of death’s table.
Though Davis isn’t in the clear yet, what a majority of the justices likely saw yesterday in Davis’s case was a tale of everything wrong with capital punishment. Ambiguous evidence, police coercion, racial bias — you name it, and this case has it. And behind it all was a trigger-happy state just itching to kill first and ask questions later.
In 1989, Davis, a black man, supposedly killed white Savannah police officer Mark MacPhail in a Burger King parking lot. As witnesses testified at his 1991 trial, Davis and two of his friends picked a fight with a homeless man when MacPhail, who was off-duty, intervened. When MacPhail arrived, Davis, who had been hitting the man over the head with a pistol, turned on MacPhail and shot him three times: once in the face, once in the chest and once in the right thigh. A manhunt ensued, and four days later, Davis turned himself in.
The “supposedly” is tacked on there for a reason. No physical evidence exists linking Davis to the murder. No DNA. No murder weapon. No gunpowder residue. The only evidence that led to Davis’s conviction was witness testimonies — primarily the nine testimonies from the state’s witnesses.
It turns out those witnesses weren’t all that reliable. Since the trial, seven of the nine have gone back on their statements. Many now claim the police coerced them into ratting out Davis. In one, Antoine Williams now claims that police officers told him to read and sign a statement implicating Davis as the killer. The thing is, Williams can’t read.
If a case built on crumbling evidence isn’t already bad enough, it gets worse. Many people don’t just think Davis is innocent; they found the real culprit to prove it. At least nine witnesses have said they saw Davis’s friend, Sylvester Coles, murder MacPhail. Coincidentally, Coles is one of the two remaining witnesses for the prosecution who haven’t recanted their testimony against Davis.
What’s left is a shaky case that Georgia wants to end the easy way. This is why, despite knowing that the U.S. Supreme Court originally scheduled to decide Davis’s appeal next week, Georgia scheduled Davis’s execution for yesterday. That forced the Supreme Court to hold an emergency conference yesterday to issue a stay of execution until Monday.
It shouldn’t be too surprising that Georgia tried to hurry up and kill Davis before a decision was made, though. The possibility of innocence isn’t a big priority for states allowing capital punishment.
Since 1973, eight prisoners waiting on Georgia’s death row have been exonerated. Since 1976, Georgia has executed 43 prisoners. That means roughly 15.7 percent of the prisoners either executed or scheduled to be executed were innocent. When a state is making the irreversible decision to take someone’s life, getting it wrong more than 15 percent of the time is incredible. It makes you wonder about how many more of those 43 men were innocent but not lucky enough to prove it.
And then there is the racial discrimination that pervades capital punishment in this country. In Davis’s case, a black man shot a white cop. Statically, that’s just asking for a death sentence. In numerous studies, including a 1990 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office finding that a victim’s race influenced the likelihood that the death sentence would be given, researchers have found that both the race of the perpetrator and the victim disproportionately matter. Black men are more likely to be given the death penalty, and criminals who kill white people are more likely to be given the death penalty. Saying that Davis is another example of this would be unfair — but these things should be considered.
Troy Davis got really lucky yesterday. But our justice system shouldn’t be based on luck.
Gary Graca is the Daily’s editorial page editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.