In many ways, the story of racial injustice and the death penalty in the U.S. can be summarized in the story of Troy Anthony Davis.
On the night of August 19, 1989, an off-duty police officer, Mark MacPhail, was shot and killed. The events leading to his death are quite unclear. Eyewitness accounts and testimonies have been altered and recanted. However, the story was reported as follows: Standing outside a Burger King in Savannah, Georgia, a black man, Sylvester “Redd” Coles was seen harassing a homeless man for beer. Coles continued to harass the homeless man and followed the man to a nearby parking lot. Several bystanders, including Troy Anthony Davis, followed the scuffle. Coles was overheard threatening to shoot the homeless man and seen hitting him over the head with a gun. Hearing the homeless man’s cries for help, MacPhail responded to the scene. While responding to the fight, a .38 caliber revolver set off ultimately killing officer MacPhail.
At first, witnesses had a hard time identifying the shooter as the scene was not well lit, and two men present, Coles and Davis, appeared similar in appearance to many. Soon after the shooting, Coles confronted the police to tell his version of events and implicate Davis. Unaware that he was accused of a crime, Davis went to Atlanta in search of job opportunities. Davis’ trip appeared to police like an attempt to flee the scene of the crime and an admission of his guilt.
(Protesters hold images of Davis, from here)
During the day on August 19, 1989, another shooting occurred at a party where both Coles and Davis were present. At this scene, Coles was overheard arguing with the victim. Shell casings from both scenes revealed that the same firearm had been used in both shootings. Despite the mounting evidence against Coles, his belongings were never searched, and he was never questioned as a suspect in either crime. Davis was deemed guilty and put on trial. There was never an investigation into his part in the crime, and he was never questioned as a suspect.
Here is where things get even messier…
- Police never corroborated Coles’ story.
- Without performing an investigation, Davis’ picture was broadcast on TV along with proclamations that he was a cop killer.
- Coles’ picture was not included in a photo lineup for witnesses.
- Seven out of nine witnesses have recanted their testimonies citing coercion, threats, and police pressure. Eyewitness recantations include the following: Dorothy Ferrell told police that she saw nothing, yet testified falsely. Ferrell later told the public that she felt “compelled to identify Mr. Davis because she was on parole. [A detective] showed Ms. Ferrell only one photograph and suggested she should [identify Davis]” [link opens PDF]. Darrell Collins was 16 at the time of his eyewitness testimony to the police. The police threatened him with jail time if he did not identify Davis as the shooter. Collins, afraid of being sentenced to jail time, then knowingly falsely identified Davis.
- One of the individuals who has not recanted his testimony is the primary alternative suspect.
- At the time of Davis’ habeas corpus petition, Congress cut funding to post-conviction defender organizations, such as the one representing Davis. Therefore, Davis lost the majority of his defense and evidence of recantations and other new evidence was never discovered or heard by a jury.
The case of Troy Anthony Davis offers insight into the kind of injustices that a person of color faces in the criminal justice system. To learn more about upcoming proceedings in the Davis case, and to take action on his behalf, please visit:
With the mounting evidence of Davis’ innocence, why does he still sit on death row? We ask several questions for readers here:
- If Davis were a white man, would police have produced a thorough investigation?
- If Davis were a white man, would his pleas of innocence be taken more seriously?
- If Davis were a white man, would he be provided with fair and adequate treatment by the police/justice system?
~ *We are a group of four sociology students studying the death penalty in Danielle Dirks’ “Capital Punishment in America” undergraduate course at University of Texas-Austin. This is the first post of our four-part blog series on race and the death penalty. Please read and feel free to comment or ask questions. Thank you for your time!