Troy Davis: A death row case of too much doubt

OPINION - Not unlike many people facing the ultimate sentence, Troy Davis has always maintained his innocence. But, this time there's reason to believe him...

Six days.

As of this writing, that’s how long Troy Davis has to live.

Convicted in 1989, a jury in a Savannah, Georgia courtroom said Troy Anthony Davis murdered an off-duty police officer in cold blood. Based on inconsistent statements from eyewitnesses, Davis received the death penalty.

Not unlike many people facing the ultimate sentence, Davis has always maintained his innocence. But, this time there’s reason to believe him.

No gun was ever found and there is no DNA or blood evidence. Nearly every prosecution witness has recanted their testimony in the 22 years since the trial.

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Countless appeals have been filed, aided by newly sworn testimony offered regarding another man’s confession. Letters from world leaders, including former U.S. presidents, have been written and rarely seen rulings have come down from the U.S. Court ordering the case evaluated for a new trial — a trial that would never come. So for fourth time in as many years, Davis is a dead man walking. He escaped the executioner’s charge once, coming within two hours of execution and having already eaten his last meal.

This time is likely his last.

All of Davis’ appeals have been exhausted and there is little chance, according to his attorneys, that his life will be spared. His only hope is the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles, a committee of five men and women appointed by the governor. If history is any guide, it is unlikely that they will rule in Davis’ favor.

Hoping against hope, on Thursday morning, advocacy groups submitted a petition to the board that included more than 660,000 names of people who support the bid to save Davis’ life. Some 100,000 more signed an online petition, sponsored by the NAACP. Many who signed on to the “I am Troy Davis” campaign surely don’t believe in the death penalty at all. However, many signers — including former President Jimmy Carter, Pope Benedict XVI and Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu — believe Davis is innocent.

They aren’t alone.A group of 27 former judges and prosecutors, including former Congressman Bob Barr, deputy attorney general Larry Thompson and former FBI Director William Sessions, filed a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court on Davis’ behalf in 2009.

“It is clear,” former Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson said in support of clemency, “that the doubts plaguing his case can never be adequately addressed.”

“Even for death penalty supporters such as myself, the level of doubt inherent in this case is troubling,” said Barr.

I’ve been following this case since the early 1990s, when I was a cub reporter at the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Even then, something seemed terribly wrong. Reading through the transcripts, it was imminently clear that Troy Davis was anything but a model-citizen. He had been involved in another murder, and shell casings found at the scene of the MacPhail murder connected the cases. It is likely the same gun was used, but no one ever proved — in a world where guns and bullets are as transient as sometimes the people who carry them — beyond a shadow of a doubt that Troy Davis pulled the trigger. It was also clear to me and many others in the newsroom that doubt remained.

Too much doubt.

I’ve interviewed a good many murderers in my day — including convicted Atlanta child murderer Wayne Williams and former DeKalb county sheriff Sydney Dorsey, who ordered a hit against the man who beat him in a re-election campaign.

I knew Dorsey and his victim, Derwin Brown. I wanted them both Williams and Dorsey to be innocent. Especially Dorsey, because we had once been friends. After interviewing them, I knew they weren’t. I wanted to interview Davis before the execution. So, I filed requests with the Georgia Department of Corrections, the warden who runs the Jackson facility and even sought the support of Amnesty International. I wanted to hear him tell his story — whatever it is. And I wanted the world to hear it. My requests, like all others, were denied.

While the case against Davis is troubling, if not tragic if he is truly innocent, I was stupefied as I watched the recent spate of GOP presidential preference primary debates. At one point the audience roared with applause as the moderator noted that Governor Rick Perry had overseen more executions in Texas than any other in history.


I shook my head in disbelief as I thought about Todd Willingham, put to death by lethal injection in 2004 under Governor Perry’s signature. Despite mounds of unraveled evidence, including the junk science that pointed to Willingham as an arsonist who killed his three young children in a devastating house fire in Corsicana, Texas, Perry worked double over-time to make sure the state killed him.

Three members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, including the chairman, were re-assigned in haste—sparking allegations that Perry was inferring with the investigation and playing politics with an innocent man’s life.

To my knowledge, there have been no such hi-jinx here in Georgia.

For his part, Governor Nathan Deal and his predecessors have run the Davis case by the book. If there was a wrong, it was in the courts. But prosecutorial misconduct, flaky scientific findings, racial profiling, and faulty or coerced eyewitness testimony are all too common in death penalty cases.

Prosecutors fight an uphill battle every day to find justice on our behalf, but some are too willing to do anything, anything at all to secure a conviction. And too many governors, for political purposes, are too willing to sign death warrants.

The book Tested, published in 2010 by writer Peyton Budd and former child sex crimes prosecutor turned Episcopal deacon Rev. Dorothy Budd, tells the story of 12 innocent men—some of whom spent time on death row, who were later exonerated. All told, they lost 189 years or 1,655,640 hours of their lives.

In Willingham, in the 12 men of Tested, and in Davis, there is a troubling of the water I cannot shake.

If nothing is done, Troy Davis will die, compounding a national tragedy. How does an exceptional nation execute innocent men and women? When did we decide it was right and reasonable to discard exculpatory evidence because it wasn’t found before trial or fail to prosecute hack scientist who get paid to offer shoddy testimony? When did it become virtuous to support the election of leaders who kill more people—guilty or innocent—that anybody else?

Some, none or all that may be true in the Davis case. We may never know. We may never know with certainly who killed Officer MacPhail. But we should, before we kill anybody else.