Guilty or Innocent: Reflections on the Troy Davis Case
By Katie Tabeling
“I am innocent”, declared Troy Anthony Davis moments before he was executed by lethal injection on Wednesday, Sept. 21. Davis’ family watched in silence just a few feet away as his sentence was carried out. Outside the prison, hundreds of picketers gathered in prayer and protest as Davis’ life ebbed away.
Davis was convicted in 1991 for the murder of police officer Mark MacPhail. MacPhail attempted to help a homeless man who Davis was allegedly beating with a pistol after asking him for a beer. MacPhail, who was off-duty at the time, was shot in a Burger King parking lot, with nine eye-witnesses placing the gun in Davis’ hand.
After twenty years of being on death row, Davis has maintained his innocence. Since his conviction, he has filed multiple petitions and appeals for wrongful detention, reviewing the case, and a new trial. All of these appeals were denied repeatedly. However, he has been granted three stays that suspended his execution throughout the years, miraculously. And what caused Davis to be sentenced to death after all these years?
If his bulletproof assertion of innocence did not cast the shadow of a doubt over the two decades, then certainly the punctured nature of the case did. In 1999, there were seven witnesses that testified that they saw Davis shoot MacPhail and two that claimed Davis confessed to the murder. To date, seven eyewitnesses have recanted their testimonies. Even more disconcerting is the absence of a murder weapon. The revolver that shot and killed MacPhail has never been recovered. What was found were castings at the crime scene that matched those fired at a party Davis briefly attended. Even then, Davis was accompanied by a friend for the entire evening; who’s to say that his friend didn’t fire the weapon?
Looking at the cold, hard facts, it’s a little baffling to see how this was ever a solid case. Since when has eyewitness testimony ever been a sound foundation to convict a man? Anyone who watches too much crime television can tell you this: physical evidence offers very little room for interpretation or imagination. This case is built almost entirely on shaky eyewitness accounts with little evidence to back it up. Have we reverted back to the days of the Salem Witch Trials, where all we need is a single accusation? Of the seven who recanted, a few even claim that police coerced them for statements, while others spoke out against Davis in an act of revenge. In the case of an African-American working-class man killing a former army ranger in Savannah, the police did not have to look hard for witnesses; a total of 34 witnesses testified on the prosecution’s behalf. How many, I wonder, were intimidated by the police outside the seven that had recanted? And how many were African-Americans “interviewed” by white officers?
The shadow of doubt that was cast over the next two decades and the world even reached the court system. The Georgia Supreme Court granted three stays for Davis’ execution. In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed Davis to present his case in lower courts—ruling that his attorneys need to establish his innocence instead of prosecutors proving guilt. For those who have little understanding of law or of the case, understand that the doubt shed by the circumstances or by the ambiguous agreements of court officials is too little to convict on.
After 20 years, three stays, and a colossal effort, Davis’s battle for justice has been lost. The last words of Davis asked that people continue to look closer at his case to discover the truth. MacPhail’s mother, Anneliese MacPhail, brushed these final thoughts aside in an interview: “He’s been telling himself that for 22 years. You know how it is; he can talk himself into anything.” But how can one soundly sleep, knowing that a man is dead and not knowing whether he is innocent or guilty?