AJC: Troy Davis may be innocent

The following is Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s editorial on Troy Davis’ execution:

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

If Troy Anthony Davis had occupied a higher rung on the social ladder, he probably would not have been convicted of murder in the August 1989 shooting death of a Savannah police officer. If Davis were a doctor or lawyer or college professor, it’s unlikely police would have targeted him on the word of a small-time thug.

But Davis isn’t a member of the tony set; he is neither educated nor affluent. He grew up in a tidy if modest neighborhood with a father who worked in law enforcement, but by adulthood, he had acquired a petty rap sheet. At the time of the tragic murder of police officer Mark Allen MacPhail, Davis was working for meager wages and looking for a better job.

So when Sylvestor Nathaniel “Redd” Coles coolly walked into a police station hours after the murder, accompanied by a lawyer, and identified Davis as the shooter, Savannah police had no trouble taking his word for it, even though Coles had a rap sheet of his own. They set out to collect evidence against Davis, and by the time the case came to trial, they had nine witnesses, including Coles, to testify against him.

Since then, however, seven of those nine witnesses have recanted or contradicted their testimony, and Davis’s current attorneys now believe Coles actually killed MacPhail. Most of the recanting witnesses claim that they feared the police in 1989 and that they were coerced into giving statements implicating Davis. Given that a fellow officer had been killed, it hardly seems implausible that Savannah police exerted pressure to get the testimony needed for a conviction.

Most chilling is the recollection of Tonya Johnson, who says she didn’t tell police all she knew back then. She now says that she saw a man running from the direction of the shooting that night, and that she saw him hide two guns behind the screen door of an abandoned apartment next door. According to Davis’ attorneys, that man was Coles. They believe Johnson feared retribution from Coles if she had testified to the truth.

Despite the recanted testimony, the state Supreme Court refused to grant Davis a new trial earlier this year, and, on Monday, the state Board of Pardons and Parole reaffirmed its decision to deny a petition for clemency. Davis was scheduled for execution last night, but the U.S. Supreme Court intervened with a last-minute stay.

Americans fed a steady diet of Hollywood-concocted police procedurals and crime dramas have come to expect that police will always find, if not a smoking gun, at least a few damning pieces of forensic evidence. Real life is rarely so satisfying. In the Davis case, there was precious little physical evidence — no DNA, no fingerprints, not even the murder weapon.

The jury based its decision on those witnesses, who swore Davis was the man who pulled the trigger, or that at the very least he had a gun that might have been the murder weapon. (The killing had occurred at night, in a poorly lit parking lot, in the midst of a scuffle. Officer MacPhail, working an extra job, had intervened to try to break up a fight in a commercial area near a Burger King and a Greyhound station.)

Even under the best of circumstances, eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable. More than 75 percent of the people exonerated by DNA evidence had been falsely convicted by bad eyewitness testimony in their original trials.

With no DNA in this case, there is no way to know for sure. Despite all his protestations of innocence, despite the celebrities who appealed for clemency, despite the recent revisions of testimony, it’s certainly possible that Davis shot a young police officer several times on a hot August evening in 1989. It’s certainly possible that he finally may get the punishment he justly deserves.

But it seems equally plausible that Davis was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, fingered by the real criminal and convicted by a criminal justice system eager to put a cop-killer behind bars.

If so, the U.S. Supreme Court has just prevented the state of Georgia from murdering an innocent man.

Cynthia Tucker is the editorial page editor. Her column appears Sunday and Wednesday.

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Hooman Hedayati

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