Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The death penalty: Is it time for a national moratorium?

by Charles Hallman
Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder
Originally posted 7/25/2007

An MSR interview with Georgia death-row inmate Troy Davis

Troy Anthony Davis was all set to join the U.S. military. Instead, he has been locked up in a Georgia prison for almost two decades.

Davis was convicted and condemned to die in 1991 for killing a Savannah, Georgia, police officer. After having exhausted his appeals, Davis was scheduled to die by lethal injection July 17 until the Georgia parole board granted him a 90-day stay of execution for “evaluating and analyzing the evidence provided during the board appointment.”

After he was sentenced, seven of nine witnesses who testified in his trial that he shot Mark Allen MacPhail in 1989 have recanted their testimonies and now say Davis did not shoot the police officer. Davis has contended all along that he is innocent of the crime.

Davis’ account of the incident is as follows: He and a group of friends were outside a Greyhound bus station in Savannah where a man was getting beat up on by Sylvester “Red” Coles. After being told by Coles to get away when they tried to break it up, Davis and a friend then left the scene. McPhail, who was off-duty at the time, then came over to offer assistance and was shot twice. He was White.

A few days later, Davis was out of town preparing to join the Marines when family members called and told him that he was wanted for the shooting. Davis turned himself in. Two years later he was convicted, and he has been on Georgia death row ever since.

In an exclusive interview last May, the MSR asked Davis several questions. The following are his unedited responses:

MSR: Troy, explain how you have kept your composure, patience, sanity, etc. during almost two decades of maintaining your innocence.

TD: I have been able to remain positive and keep my composure due to having a strong family and truly believing that my innocence has to come to light somehow. My mother raised us to believe in God, so I asked God to keep me safe and help me prove my innocence.

It hasn’t been an easy road trying to be patient, but I am a strong-minded person. I see so many traumas, sadness, fear, and many other emotions in the other death-row inmates, and hatred from some of the people that work here.

MSR: Throughout the entire ordeal, why haven’t the authorities heard your side of the story?

TD: The authorities wanted to find a cop killer. Once Sylvester Coles [who testified against him] and his lawyer pointed the finger at me, they made a secret deal agreeing not to charge him if Sylvester gave them what they wanted. They took his word at face value and thought it was an open-and-shut case. In order for the authorities to even entertain my side of the story, they would have to admit to lies, coercion, unethical conduct, and threats they made to me.

[Soon after the McPhail shooting, Coles and his lawyer went to the police and made a statement exonerating him and implicating Davis as the gunman. During the trial, Coles admitted that he carried a .38 caliber handgun, the same type of gun used in the shooting. However, investigators never found the murder weapon.]

MSR: Did you do anything to Sylvester Coles that you would think spur him to falsely accuse you?

TD: I have never done anything to Sylvester Coles. Red always has been a very mean-spirited person who felt as if guns were his power. I am assuming he thought I might snitch on him because he had the gun, and he was attacking that man, so he ran to the police station a few hours after the shooting with a lawyer and pointed the finger at me. I did not even know anyone was shot, especially a policeman, until my family told me I was on the news.

MSR: Anything that I didn’t ask that you wish to talk about?

TD: The incident started for me when I tried to stop Red from pistol-whipping and attacking a homeless man over a can of beer. The man was struck by a left-handed attacker, as he testified. I am right handed.

I want people to know [that] I voluntarily turned myself in once I knew I was suspected of the murder. I had nothing to hide, and I thought by telling the truth I would be released.

Once at the police station, the only question was, “Tell us where the gun is and make it easy on yourself.” In their minds, I was already guilty and convicted. They never asked me what happened that night, and from then on my life and the life of my family was forever changed.

My prayers go out sincerely to Mr. McPhail’s family. They hate me because of lies, but until a court agrees to view all the new real evidence of what happened, they’ll never know the truth. They deserve justice, just like I do.

I refuse to hate those who stole my life from me because that is not who I am. I am angry that I have missed so much of my life and my family’s life. I have missed my father’s funeral.

I just want my freedom back. I want justice once and for all.

The 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton, limits the number of death sentence appeals to three phases, including actions during pretrial and trial proceedings. Davis’ appeals have been denied at each phase, including the U.S. Supreme Court.

Martina Correia, Davis’ oldest sister, has been the leader in the fight for her brother’s freedom. “Martina is a fighter, and every day she wants to do something to help her brother,” said Laura Moye of Amnesty International, a group opposed to the death penalty that initiated a global campaign to support Davis’ case. “It is completely shameful that the courts have not heard the new evidence.”

Correia visits Davis in prison every other week. “He always was a good brother,” she says. “He never was a troublesome child or young man. He was going into the Marine Corps. So, for people to make him out as a monster, this is so far away from Troy.”

The 90-day stay that the Georgia parole board granted him last week is only temporary. If Davis’ lawyers can’t get a new trial, their client still faces execution unless the board commutes his sentence to life in prison, with or without parole.

“Troy had to give up a lot for our family,” Correia concluded. She and the rest of Davis’ family and supporters sincerely hope that does not include his life.

Information from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Associated Press contributed to this article. For more information on Troy Davis, go to Amnesty’s website ( and Davis’ website (

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to

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