Troy Davis: Murder Was the Race That They Gave Him
What's the difference between death-sentencing prosecutors and Charles Manson?
Today in Atlanta, Troy Davis will go before the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles for a chance to have his life spared. He is scheduled to die by lethal injection on September 21 at 7 p.m., at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson, Ga. This is his fourth scheduled execution date after being convicted in 1991 of killing police officer Mark MacPhail on August 19, 1989.
To over 600,000 people who’ve signed petitions requesting that the death penalty sentence for Davis be overturned -- including appeals from the Pope, the NAACP, Amnesty International, former Georgia governor and U.S. President Jimmy Carter, and 51 members of Congress -- there is too much doubt.
For Chatham County District Attorney Spencer Lawton, the prosecutor who secured Davis’ death sentence in ‘91, there is no doubt that Davis murdered MacPhail. Lawton is convinced Davis is the killer because of a shooting earlier that same day Davis was convicted of -- shell casings matched those found near MacPhail’s dead body.
"The only person being pursued by a police officer was Troy Davis. So he was the only person with a motive in the parking lot to shoot the police officer. There you have it," Lawton told a local TV news station.
This is as close to physical evidence as it gets, though, for Davis’ case. Another guy who was at the scene of the MacPhail crime, Sylvester Coles, also owned a .38 revolver like the one used to kill the police officer. Problem is, Coles is the primary witness against Davis.
But this is not about Davis' guilt or innocence. It’s about whether justice is being served in the case of yet another black man sentenced to death for killing a white man. In Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow,” the author calls up the Georgia case McCleskey v Kemp. Like Davis, Warren McCleskey was a black man facing the death penalty after being convicted of killing a white police officer. In his defense, McClesky teamed with law professor David Baldus to review 2,000 death penalty cases in Georgia. What they found: Defendants charged with killing white people were given the death penalty 11 times more than those charged with killing black people; also, that Georgia prosecutors sought the death penalty in 70% of cases involving black defendants and white victims while seeking it in less than 20% of cases involving white defendants and black victims.
Despite this empirical evidence, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the idea that any kind of racial bias was leading to a lopsided playing field for black people in Georgia courts, and even went so far as to suggest that a certain amount of racial discrimination may be tolerated so long as no one verbally confesses to it.
“If we accepted McCleskey’s claim that racial bias has impermissibly tainted the capital sentencing decision, we could soon be faced with similar claims as to other types of penalty,” reads the Supreme Court opinion.
Well, duh. That’s the point of justice, as acknowledged by dissenting Justice William Brennan who said his colleagues seemed to be plagued with a “fear of too much justice.” Justice Lewis Powell, who spoke for the majority that struck down the racial bias claim, later said he wished he could take the McClesky v Kemp decision back.
Justice John Paul Stevens who retired from the Supreme Court last year wrote in his biography that “the murder of black victims is treated as less culpable than the murder of white victims provides a haunting reminder of once-prevalent Southern lynchings,”
District attorney Lawton has more than a few episodes of prosecutorial misconduct that have led to conviction reversals, and he is operating in a system that has proven racial bias in death sentences. But Lawton will not confront these ghosts of injustice.
In Davis’ case, seven of nine witnesses who originally implicated Davis have recanted their testimonies, some of whom say they were coerced into fingering Davis, and some who now admit that Coles was the shooter -- including a family member and friend of Coles. Since Coles and Davis are both black, perhaps racial bias is not at hand in Lawton’s certainty about MacPhail’s killer. But we do also know that many prosecutors are bloodthirsty for convictions, and reward themselves accordingly.
Take the case of John Thompson, a black man in Louisiana who was sentenced to death for killing a white New Orleans hotel executive, and spent 18 years in jail, 14 years on death row. He was scheduled for death eight times before finally exonerated after hidden exculpatory evidence was revealed at the last second.
While prosecutorial misconduct was found, judges labeled the case an anomaly and all but granted immunity to state prosecutors who put people away and demand the death penalty while withholding evidence. The prosecutor in Thompson’s case, Harry Connick Sr., father of the jazz artist of the same name, created a culture in his district attorney’s office where convictions were prized “at any cost,” as attorney Nick Trenticosta of the Center for Equal Justice put it.
Thompson was originally awarded $14 million for the years of his life lost due to the corruption of Connick’s office, but the award was then taken away by the U.S. Supreme Court. In an op-ed to the New York Times, Thompson said it was never about the money but instead:
“I just want to know why the prosecutors who hid evidence, sent me to prison for something I didn’t do and nearly had me killed are not in jail themselves. There were no ethics charges against them, no criminal charges, no one was fired and now, according to the Supreme Court, no one can be sued.”
I talked with Thompson about his own case and Troy Davis’ and he made the comparison between district attorney’s ordering juries to give out death sentences and Charles Manson, who’s in jail right now not because he committed murder, but because he ordered murders.
Said Thompson: “If you look at Charles Manson, he’s in jail because he convinced this cult of people to go out and kill. What is the difference between him and a prosecutor who his withholding information and convincing a jury to kill a man … That is wrong, and I wouldn’t advise anybody else to do that because you playing with people’s lives. It doesn’t matter to me if Mr. Davis is innocent or guilty. He shouldn’t die. No one should have that ability to take a life, unless they are willing to give theirs up. If a prosecutor is willing to sentence an innocent man or get a jury to sentence an innocent man to die, then that is murder.”
When I first heard the comparison, it took me off guard. Comparing state prosecutors to Charlie Manson? Unbelievable. But considering the history of race and the death penalty, not only in Georgia, but in the U.S., even today -- I have little doubt the comparison qualifies.
I’m also reminded of the family of James Anderson, the black man in Mississippi who was beaten and then run over by a truck by people shouting “White Power!” In a letter to the judge, Anderson’s sister requests that her brother’s killer(s) be spared the death penalty. This is most likely a case of white defendants accused of killing a black person where the death penalty arguably should apply, especially given Mississippi’s history. But instead, Anderson’s sister wrote:
“We also oppose the death penalty because it historically has been used in Mississippi and the South primarily against people of color for killing whites. Executing James’ killers will not help to balance the scales. But sparing them may help to spark a dialogue that one day will lead to the elimination of capital punishment.”
That is the point of justice.