If Troy Davis had been a high school principal or a funeral home director or the proprietor of a soul food restaurant, he probably wouldn’t have landed in the middle of an investigation into a police officer’s murder. Had he been a member of Savannah’s black middle-class, he likely would have been treated with a bit more deference by the criminal justice system.
But Davis was none of those things. While he grew up working class, he dropped out of high school, his family says, to care for an ailing sister. And he hung out in neighborhood pool halls and beer joints with the aimless and the marginalized, people who had their own troubles with the law.
Those habits made him vulnerable. When a petty hood named Sylvester Nathaniel “Redd” Coles walked into a Savannah police station and fingered Davis as a cop-killer, police believed they had found their man. Two years later, after a jury trial that lasted only a few hours, Davis was convicted of killing off-duty police officer Mark Allen MacPhail, who was trying to break up a brawl in a dark parking lot in the wee hours of Aug. 19, 1989.
You may already know the rest: Years later, seven of nine key prosecution witnesses recanted their testimony — some saying they had feared police retaliation if they didn’t implicate Davis for the murder of MacPhail. Other individuals have offered information that points the finger at Coles.
But those dramatic twists and turns have not been enough, so far, to extricate Davis from the deadly grip of a criminal justice system that seems reluctant to admit that it may have erred. His best hope now lies with the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles. If it refuses Davis’ request for clemency, he will likely be put to death this week.
This is no simple story of racism run amok, no clichéd case of white police officers looking to nail a black man for the death of a white cop. This is a more complicated — and much more routine — case where class and race intersect, co-mingle and overlap, but class, not color, is the critical factor.
Davis lacked the community standing that would have earned him the benefit of the doubt with a police force stunned by the death of one of its own. He also lacked the financial resources to hire a “dream team” of lawyers and private investigators to highlight the weaknesses in the police investigation.
Please don’t misread me: I’m not suggesting that race didn’t matter at all or that the black bourgeoisie never get caught in the harsh cross-currents of a flawed criminal justice system. They do.
Still, it’s very rare that a college-educated, well-spoken, white-collared black man gets accused of killing a cop. The narrative is too strained, too unconvincing.
Davis, however, fit the prejudices and presumptions well enough for police desperate to find the criminal who had gunned down a fellow officer. He had been at the scene of MacPhail’s shooting, in the scrum that formed around a physical altercation. He had been in attendance at a party hours earlier when a disturbance broke out and gunfire erupted. He had a rap sheet.
Still, it is frightening to consider what a flimsy foundation the case was built on. If you’ve been spoiled by police procedurals such as the CSI franchise, if you believe that damning cases are built on thorough investigations and painstaking forensics, you’d be in for a shock. In the MacPhail shooting, police had no physical evidence — no gun, no fingerprints, no DNA.
When most of the key witnesses recanted, Davis should have been granted a new trial. But in a March 2008 ruling, the Georgia Supreme Court refused to give him one.
In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a federal judge to grant a hearing on the new evidence, but the court set an impossible standard: Davis had to prove his innocence.
In the years since new evidence has come to light, Savannah police and prosecutors have stood by their case, insisting that Davis is the man who took MacPhail’s life. The slain officer’s family members, too, are convinced that Davis committed the crime. Perhaps they are right.
But they could just as easily be wrong. That’s the problem with putting Davis to death.