Voltaire once said, “It is better to risk saving a guilty man than condemn an innocent one.” Had the Supreme Court heeded this quote, Troy Davis might still be alive.
On Sept. 21, 2011, Davis was executed in Georgia for the murder of Mark MacPhail, a Savannah police officer. Prior to his death, Davis’s scheduled execution sparked outrage across the globe. Over 500 protesters lined the street in front of the prison before his execution.
Former President Jimmy Carter, Pope Benedict XVI, former Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson and former FBI Director William Sessions all spoke out on Davis’s behalf, pleading for the postponement of the execution; Sessions even asked the Supreme court in 2009 to grant Davis an innocence hearing in order to “prevent a potential miscarriage of justice.”
The NAACP began the “I am Troy” campaign, and considered asking President Obama to grant Davis clemency.
Protests sprang up all throughout Europe, including a rally in France that gathered 150 demonstrators waving signs with Davis’s face printed on them.
The Innocence Project, Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union have all gotten involved, and over 660,000 people have signed petitions in support of Davis. Clearly, Davis’ execution impacted the world.
Executions typically attract anti-death penalty protesters, but rarely of this magnitude. The reason for the outpour of support for Davis was the seven recantations of witness testimony prior to his execution. On a case with no physical evidence to go by, Davis’ conviction was almost entirely based on eyewitness testimony.
Of the nine witnesses that testified naming Davis as MacPhail’s shooter, seven recanted either all or parts of their statements. Some admitted to being coerced by officers to testify against Davis and one, Antoine Williams, admitted that he had no clue who had shot MacPhail and that he was illiterate; he was unable to read the police statement he signed after the murder.
Of the two witnesses who did not recant, Sylvester Coles, the first witness to come forth and implicate Davis, may possibly be the real gunman as more and more evidence is beginning to suggest.
Nine people have come forward implicating Coles as MacPhail’s shooter. Though no gun was found at the scene of the crime, police were able to determine that MacPhails’s death resulted from the bullets of a .38 caliber gun. Coles admitted to owning that same type of gun.
According to the Innocence Project, 273 death row inmates have been exonerated since 1989 through post-conviction DNA. Seventy-five percent of those exonerations dealt with cases where poor eyewitness testimony led to the conviction of innocent people.
In fact, research has shown that eyewitness testimony is often unreliable. Hugo Munsterberg conducted a study in as early as 1907 questioning how reliable eyewitness testimony can actually be. The American Judicature Society found that the leading factor of wrongful convictions is mistaken eyewitness testimony.
These facts are scary. If 273 people have been exonerated through DNA evidence, imagine all those who have not and who are either still sitting on death row or, even worse, have already been executed. If research indicates that eyewitness testimony can often be unreliable, how can people like Davis be executed when eyewitness evidence is all there is for a conviction?
Since his 1989 arrest, throughout his trial and appeals and all the way up until his execution, Davis pleaded his innocence. After three previous stays and one rare innocence hearing, Davis was denied a final stay of execution by the Georgia Supreme Court, the Board of Pardons and Paroles and the federal Supreme Court. The Georgia Department of Corrections even denied Davis a polygraph test, which Davis and his attorneys tried to use as a last minute attempt to deter the execution.
Before Davis was finally put to death, he asked to speak to MacPhail’s family and said, “I was not responsible for what happened that night. I did not have a gun. I was not the one who took the life of your father, son, brother,” and then told them to delve deeper and seek the truth once he died.
Regardless of whether or not Davis was actually innocent, he should not have been executed on Sept. 21, 2011. Granted, I realize that just about everyone in the United States prison system pleads their innocence, making it difficult, if not impossible for the courts to devote sufficient time to look at every single innocence claim.
Davis’s case differs because of those seven recantations. With no gun left behind and no DNA found at the scene of the crime, Davis’ conviction relied on those nine testimonies.
The fact that the courts did not look into the seven recantations is mind boggling to me. The recantations and the possibility that Coles might be the real shooter leads me to believe that Davis’ execution was absolutely unjustified.
In trial, the burden of proof is supposed to be on the state. Defendants are innocent until proven guilty, but once they are convicted, that burden goes onto them.
This is a huge burden to answer to and in the case of Davis, nearly impossible to prove. Despite the recantations and other witnesses coming forth to implicate a different man, the federal judge who presided over Davis’ innocence trial did not grant a new trial, instead regarding those accounts as “largely smoke and mirrors.”
I continue to ask myself why those accounts did not even warrant an investigation. They were completely dismissed and Davis was executed.
This is a man who very well might have been innocent but was executed all because of eyewitness testimonies; testimonies that were for the most part later recanted.
If proper evidence ever does come out to reveal that Davis was not MacPhail’s killer, there is no way to repay him and his family. His death is irrevocable. It could have been postponed further. Those recantations could have and should have been properly looked into before this man was executed.
Around campus, there appeared to be mixed views on Davis’ execution. Dr. Susan Brinkley, Chair/Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice, revealed, “I think any time you have the potential of taking a defendants life, all avenues should be explored. You cannot undo an execution but you can undo a life sentence.”
Assistant Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Dr. David Krahl felt strongly on the issue and stated, “I think it was a grave miscarriage of justice. I think it was another example of a criminal penalty, in this case the death penalty, that was misapplied. There was substantial room for doubt … I am fully convinced that in this particular case that Mr. Davis was wrongly executed.”
Krahl even asserted, “I can tell you that the case of Troy Anthony Davis is not over.”
Julien Guerard, a senior and a Government World Affairs major, took an opposing stance and affirmed, “I supported the execution of Troy Davis by the State of Georgia because of the extensive and unparalleled judicial review that he received leading up to his execution …
One may disagree with the principle of the death penalty, but no intellectually honest person can ignore the unmatched appellate process that Troy Davis received. It is in that line of thinking that the execution of Troy Davis was undoubtedly justified.”
This is not an article advocating for or against the death penalty. Rather, I am questioning our justice system and why Davis was executed without exploring the recantations. If Davis was in fact innocent, there will never be a way to repay him or his family. If an innocent life is taken by our justice system, then I wholeheartedly believe that our justice system is committing the murder which it condemns.
That is not justice. That is a tragic irony. If Davis was innocent, then anyone could one day face his same fate. Even I could one day be executed for a crime I did not commit. Where is the justice in that?
Jessica Keesee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org