After four previous stays of execution, and one last minute appeal that reportedly took place after the IV’s for a lethal injection were inserted, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously declared there was not enough evidence to halt the execution of Troy Davis. As a result, Davis was executed by the state of Georgia, and died at 11:08 PM EST.
By all accounts, Troy Davis was not a nice man at the time of his arrest. According to the case notes, Davis and a friend were involved in two altercations outside a pool party in Savannah, Georgia. The first occurred as they were leaving the party, when a group in a passing car allegedly shouted racial slurs at the two. Davis’ response was to fire a shot into the passing car, striking the face of passenger Michael Cooper. A short time later, they came upon a friend, Sylvester “Redd” Coles, arguing with a homeless man named Larry Young. As the group engaged in pistol-whipping Mr. Young, an off duty policeman Mark MacPhail tried to intervene and was shot twice and killed. The following day, Redd Coles went to the police and informed them he had seen Davis in possession of a .38 calibre handgun, and that Davis was an active participant in the beating of Mr. Young. An arrest was made, charges were brought, and Davis was convicted of the murder of Mr. MacPhail and sentenced to death by electrocution.
What happened next is where the controversy was born.
In Georgia, death sentences are automatically granted a right to appeal, and it was during the course of these appeals that some disturbing revelations began to come to light. Seven witnesses that initially testified as seeing Davis fire the gun recanted their testimony, stating for the record that they were coerced by the police to do so, under threat of facing charges against themselves. Additionally, three witnesses now claimed that Redd Coles had confessed to the murder in their presence. Davis’ defense attorneys, in what may be the most catastrophic mistake of the whole affair, failed to successfully subpoena Mr. Coles, resulting in the court declaring any testimony of his doing the actual shooting “hearsay” due to his inability to rebut. When all was said and done, the state rejected all these claims, arguing that the defense should have presented them sooner.
For this particular bit of legal logic, we have none other than Timothy McVeigh to thank, as his attack on the Oklahoma City Federal Building resulted in a piece of legislation called the “Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.” Within the text of that act is a provision that absolutely bars secondary or successive federal petitions of habeus corpus once the initial appeal has been denied. Meaning that, no matter how game changing any new evidence may be, the courts are legally prohibited from considering it.
Stop and think about that for a minute.
In the case of Troy Davis, all the accusations of police impropriety (far too soft a word), all the witness recantations, and all the sworn affidavits accusing Red Coles of being the actual murderer of Officer MacPhail, meant absolutely nothing in the eyes of the criminal justice system. The courts may have literally found their hands tied by a law designed to punish terrorists, that actually strips the right of the courts to uphold actual justice.
And so tonight, we watched as what would ultimately become a futile vigil took place in prime time. We listened to the protests of citizens and leaders from around the world as they all but begged for the simplest of acts: mercy. Nobody claimed that Troy Davis was a nice guy, nobody claimed that justice shouldn’t be done, nobody claimed that he should be immediately released. All they asked is that the system to live up to its stated ideals of justice and reasonable doubt. For the protesters, there was more than enough reasonable doubt to justify a re-examination of the facts, regardless of the time of their discovery. The power to kill, they argued, should never be exercised lightly, and you can’t have true justice if you refuse to acknowledge all the facts of a case, regardless of the uncomfortable truths they might reveal. Leave Troy Davis in jail if necessary, they asked, commute his sentence, but don’t kill the man simply because of an arbitrary timeline for appellate review. The truth should never come with time limit.