“I’m Just Saying,”- (column name)
The Lynching of Troy Davis
(Originally published October 2011 in The Fisk Forum-The Student Newspaper of Fisk University)
A great Blues artist of the 1920’s, Blind Willie Johnson, asks in one of the greatest songs ever written “What is the soul of a man?” In asking this question, Mr. Johnson was asking, in his unschooled yet brilliant way, “What is the essential principle undergirding humanity?” While pondering this question I could not help but wonder about the American soul. After all, a nation is naught but a collection of human souls all claiming a share of the world’s dirt. Since I have persisted in carrying that ponderous marque, “American”, from birth, and since the individual souls of a nation must bear a measure of responsibility for every action of that collective soul, it seemed that I could not separate the two, my soul and the American soul. Woe is unto me.
And so I am left to ask, “What is the essential principle which undergirds the American state?” Surely, you may rush to say, it is the ideal of liberty and justice for all. To which I would respond, these principles are themselves undergirded by something even more basic, the principle which should guide every nation, large and small, rich and poor, and even every man, woman, and child within; the principle of the right. If you believe that America is, as is often asserted, a nation thoroughly concerned with the right, after all we justify our wars by it; you are likely distressed and confused by the late execution of Mr. Troy Davis in the great state of Georgia. If you find your conscience restless, I invite you to join me as I seek to make sense of the morally senseless.
What was Mr. Davis’ crime? The following are the undisputed facts of the case as documented by the Savannah Morning News and the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in the text of their decision to deny Mr. Davis’s petition for a new trial. At some point between the late night of August 18, 1989 and the early morning of August 19, 1989, witnesses observed Sylvester “Red” Coles in the parking lot between a Savannah, Georgia Burger King and a pool hall physically assaulting Larry Young, a local homeless man. In response to Young’s cries for help, off-duty police officer Mark MacPhail raced over to the parking lot and was shot twice, in the heart and face. While it is not disputed that Mr. Coles assaulted Mr. Young, it is disputed whether or not Mr. Davis participated in the assault of Young and then murdered MacPhail. Davis asserts that he left before any shooting occurred and that he does not know who shot MacPhail.
The next day Mr. Cole reported to Savannah police that Mr. Davis had executed Officer MacPhail, soon after, the police illegally raided the home of Davis’ mother and discovered a pair of shorts belonging to Davis which had acquired a red stain of an unidentified substance, which, while one may presume it to be blood, this is by no means certain, much less whose blood, since the shorts have never been tested or admitted into evidence because of their illegal acquisition. The eyewitnesses primarily identified the shooter as a man in a white shirt, it is a matter of dispute among witnesses whether Davis or Coles was wearing a white shirt. Two witnesses reported that Davis confessed the crime to them, of these, one offered a version of events which was grossly inconsistent with the versions offered by the other witnesses. In addition three witnesses who did not testify at Davis’ trial have since submitted sworn affidavits which attest that Coles confessed to them that he was the shooter. The only physical evidence which purports to link Davis to the crime are shell casings found at the scene of MacPhail’s murder which matched those found at the site of a shooting earlier that night which had occurred outside of a pool party attended by Davis. Michael Cooper, the other man whom Davis has been convicted of shooting, testified that he was drunk at the time he was shot and that while he could not identify his shooter, he could say of Davis that “He don’t know me well enough to shoot me.”
Another witness who at first stated that Cooper had been shot by Davis testified under cross-examination that he actually did not see who shot Cooper and that he did not personally know Mr. Davis. Another witness, 16 year old Daryl Collins, once again on cross-examination, retracted his testimony linking Davis to the Cooper shooting and stated that he had been threatened by police with jail time if he did not testify against Davis. Subsequent recantations by seven of the nine eyewitnesses to the MacPhail shooting have been given “precious little weight,” to borrow a phrase from the court of appeals, due to their distance in time from the crime itself. While this is not a completely unreasonable standard, given that memory is a highly perishable commodity, surely the uncertainty among the 34 witnesses in Davis’ 1991 trial ought to cause any reasonable person to wonder about the fairness of taking Troy’s life, especially considering that the man who first pointed the finger at Davis is the same Sylvester Coles who no one disputes assaulted Young that night. It remains the crux of the prosecution’s case that Davis at some point took over Coles’s assault and then killed MacPhail. It seems to me incredible that reasonable people would make no meaningful effort to determine whether the man who, all admit, attacked Young might also have killed MacPhail, unfortunately, it seems, none in power even considered it. The man who prosecuted Mr. Davis, Mr. Spencer Lawton, continues to assert with professional certitude that the man whom he prosecuted all those years ago is the same man that cold-bloodedly murdered Officer MacPhail.
In an editorial in the Savannah Morning News, Lawton accuses Davis’s defense of a two-decades long campaign of misinformation. He, admittedly without evidence, levels the charge that the recantations of the seven witnesses were acquired through gentle coercion. He reasonably points out several defects in the recantation affidavits, which are echoed by the court of appeals decision which says that one of the affidavits was unsworn, and that two other witnesses did not categorically deny Troy’s guilt. He criticizes the time period over which the recantations were gathered, beginning five years after trial. Once again, we are left not with certainty, but doubt. Even if one does, however, privilege the trial testimony over the recanted testimony which was offered years after the fact, we are still left with the indecision among the 34 witnesses at trial, only 9 of whom were eyewitnesses, and of those only 2 of whom continue to actively assert Troy’s guilt, and of those two, one of whom is the only person undisputedly seen attacking Mr. Young on the night in question. I lack the desire, and I suspect ability, to retry this case within the confines of this article.
But let it suffice to say that the facts in this case are such that the federal judge who affirmed Davis’ guilt in a Supreme Court ordered evidentiary hearing felt compelled to concede that the prosecution’s case was not “ironclad”. Unfortunately for Mr. Davis, and fortunately for Prosecutor Lawton’s reputation, after a man has been convicted, the much touted “presumption of innocence”, the idea that one is innocent until proven guilty, ceases to exist. It becomes the convict’s duty to definitively prove his innocence. Since the doubt which the recantation testimony produced, in addition to the lack of definitive physical evidence and the uncertainty of the prosecution’s witnesses, was not enough to definitively prove Davis’ innocence, he was of course denied a new trial. Troy Davis was the victim of procedure. At this point you may wonder less that Davis was denied clemency and more that he was convicted at all.
Lest we forget that there are two victims in this case, if you believe in Mr. Davis’ innocence, let us turn to the man Troy Davis was convicted of slaying. Mark Allen MacPhail Sr. was a 27 year old father of two. In 1989 MacPhail had been on the force for three years. As a window into the victim’s character, one of the eyewitnesses against Davis (who later stated that she felt pressured to identify Davis in open court as the shooter because of her own criminal record) testified that MacPhail had once bought an elderly homeless man a cup of coffee and lingered to keep that same man company in the same parking lot in which he was so callously murdered. I have seen nothing which indicates that MacPhail was anything other than an excellent human being and a dutiful public servant who in the process of seeking to protect one of the most vulnerable among us from harm ended up making the ultimate sacrifice. That being the case, I am as much motivated by a desire that Officer MacPhail’s real murderer be punished as I am by a desire that Troy Davis’ name should be cleared. I have read in numerous places that Troy failed to meet the burden of proving his own innocence time and again.
I would contend that in executing Troy Davis we as a society failed, once, and for all time, to meet our infinitely higher burden of not allowing ourselves to be turned into agents of injustice. I would contend that while the loss of Troy Davis’s life is indeed tragic, the loss of one more thread from our nation’s moral fiber is much more so. Know that with every flutter our flag proclaims with a boldness which would shame Babylon that America kills carelessly, frequently, and with unremitting vivre. I will not, however, pretend that America is an abstraction, that the death of Troy Davis is merely an anecdotal occurrence to be parsed endlessly by academics; we must not be content to sit in detached judgment of one more drop of blood being shed on the red soil of Georgia and pretend that no blood stains our hands. If one of your children should ever become too well acquainted with her history book and deign to ask you, “who killed Troy Davis?” do not say it was the state of Georgia, do not say it was an unjust criminal justice system, do not even say that it was the racist American system, look your child in the eyes and say with clarity and certitude, “twas I my child, he and many more have been felled by my hand and in my name, and today I pass the guilt for this slaughter on to you.”
Wait, however, before you inscribe my name or yours upon the monument to those who oppose the death penalty. On the same night that Troy Davis departed from among us, we also, and after similar fashion; lost Mr. Lawrence Brewer. Mr. Brewer is one of the sordid animals who, in June of 1998, chained Mr. James Byrd to the back of a pickup truck and dragged him two miles along the asphalt of a Texas highway before gathering together the twisted remains of his mutilated and dismembered corpse, carving the letters K.K.K. into the flesh of his disembodied torso, and tossing the whole bloody heap into the cemetery of a Black church in Jasper, Texas. I must candidly admit in Brewer’s case that my only regret is not having been allowed to push the plunger on the syringe which transported Mr. Brewer into what I can only hope is the hottest, most tortuous part, of the deepest hell. To this very moment, because of cases like Brewer’s, I remain conflicted over the state’s use of death as an instrument of justice. If Troy Davis’ tragic death has taught us any lasting lesson, it is that questions of life and death, innocence and guilt, more often than not leave the asker saddled with nothing so much as doubt, wrapped in intolerability, and infused with disturbing enigma.
In conclusion, I implore you, people of America, people of Fisk, do not be so quick to forget the man we have just murdered. I do not claim here to stand above judge and jury; I do not claim to know more than the jurors that convicted Troy Davis (at least one of whom later expressed doubt at the verdict). I can, however, with certainty and a clear conscience proclaim that no criminal justice system which could take a man’s life with anything less than near absolute certainty deserves the privilege of policing a nation of free people. I must admit that I wrote this article only secondarily for the purpose of informing you, my patient readers, and primarily in the vain hope that the stain which now rests upon my soul for the sake of justice might be slightly ameliorated. In the end I can only offer up this humble hope that all wrongs will be righted and that the long arc of the moral universe really does bend toward justice.
I am the American heartbreak/Rock on which Freedom/Stumps its toe/ the great mistake/that Jamestown/Made long ago.-Langston Hughes
Sources: Savannah Morning News, 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, CNN.com, Ken5 San Antonio.