Race and the Death Penalty, III: Troy Anthony Davis and the Denial of Justice

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…

  1. Police never corroborated Coles’ story.
  2. Without performing an investigation, Davis’ picture was broadcast on TV along with proclamations that he was a cop killer.
  3. Coles’ picture was not included in a photo lineup for witnesses.
  4. 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.
  5. One of the individuals who has not recanted his testimony is the primary alternative suspect.
  6. 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:

  1. If Davis were a white man, would police have produced a thorough investigation?
  2. If Davis were a white man, would his pleas of innocence be taken more seriously?
  3. 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!


  1. Lindsay

    Davis’ case does seem strange, however the injustices that he has faced are not anomilies. In fact, in many cases when police believe that they have found the offender, especially when the suspect is a minority, police tend to overlook or even ignore mounting evidence that suggests that they were wrong. In the case of Dennis Williams and Verneal Jimerson, innocent men black men who spent 18 years on death row, police ignored a tip to the true offenders identity. Instances such as this are not rare. Police are often satisfied to find a suspect and either don’t want to admit fault or believe that if the accused black man has not committed this crime, he will or must have taken part in another.

    More on the case of Dennis Williams and Verneal Jimerson can be found at:

  2. dudleysharp

    Troy Davis: Both sides need to be told
    Dudley Sharp

    Anyone interested in justice will demand a fair, thorough look at both sides of this or any case. Here is the side that the pro Troy Davis faction isn’t presenting.

    (1) Davis v Georgia, Georgia Supreme Court, 3/17/08
    Full ruling http://www.gasupreme.us/pdf/s07a1758.pdf
    Summary http://www.gasupreme.us/op_summaries/mar_17.pdf

    ” . . . the majority finds that ‘most of the witnesses to the crime who have allegedly recanted have merely stated that they now do not feel able to identify the shooter.’ “One of the affidavits ‘might actually be read so as to confirm trial testimony that Davis was the shooter.’ ”

    The murder occurred in 1989.

    (2) “THE PAROLE BOARD’S CONSIDERATION OF THE TROY ANTHONY DAVIS CASE” , 9/22/08, http://www.pap.state.ga.us/opencms/opencms/

    “After an exhaustive review of all available information regarding the Troy Davis case and after considering all possible reasons for granting clemency, the Board has determined that clemency is not warranted.”

    “The Board has now spent more than a year studying and considering this case. As a part of its proceedings, the Board gave Davisâ?? attorneys an opportunity to present every witness they desired to support their allegation that there is doubt as to Davisâ?? guilt. The Board heard each of these witnesses and questioned them closely. In addition, the Board has studied the voluminous trial transcript, the police investigation report and the initial statements of all witnesses. The Board has also had certain physical evidence retested and Davis interviewed.”

    (3) A detailed review of the extraordinary consideration that Davis was given for all of his claims,
    by Chatham County District Attorney Spencer Lawton http://tinyurl.com/46c73l

    Troy Davis’ claims are undermined, revealing the dishonesty of the Davis advocates . Look, particularly, at pages 4-7, which show the reasoned, thoughtful and generous reviews of Davis’ claims, as well a how despicable the one sided cynical pro Troy Davis effort is.

    (4) Officer Mark Allen MacPhail: The family of murdered Officer MacPhail fully believes that Troy Davis murdered their loved one and that the evidence is supportive of that opinion. http://www.fop9.net/markmacphail/debunkingthemyths.cfm

    Not simply an emotional and understandable plea for justice, but a detailed factual review of the case.

    (5) “Death and Dying”, by Cliff Green, LIKE THE DEW, 7/22/09,

  3. dudleysharp

    in the 3 questions beginning:

    “If Davis were a white man,”

    Replace that with “If Roger Keith Coleman were a black man, . . . ” (in the time frame, pre 2006)

    and see what you come up with.

    Note that “Coleman had a documented alibi and several witnesses who gave affidavits”

  4. Kristen

    Hello there students,

    I think dudleysharp is offering you good lesson. The basis of your argument is solid – black males are treated the most harshly in the cjs, especially when the victim is white. As you know, the research is really clear on this pattern. However, what we have here – your claims vs. dudleysharp’s – is a controversial case where both sides are heavily invested in being right. Can you prove that racial bias played a significant role in Davis’s case? No. Can dudleysharp prove it didn’t? No. Stalemate.

    This is a trouble we have as racism scholars (although I suppose as undergrads you probably don’t consider yourselves “racism scholars,” but you’re studying and going there- and kudos) – struggling to convincingly connect individual cases/incidents to the patterns of racial discrimination revealed in research studies. Naysayers can always find a way to dismiss it.

    So, for the 3 questions you pose at the end of the blog, my answer for each (because I know the research) is “yeah, probably.” For those who don’t know about or who deny the realities of white racism, their answer is going to be “nope, doubt it” every time.

    I think you’re cool on the level of raising this individual case for discussion (and let’s face it, social science research studies can be annoyingly removed from the lives of real people), but you’re on shaky ground with a lot of readers if you can’t make the connection to patterns of racism very convincingly. One idea is to talk about exoneration cases (such as Tim Cole in TX and Darryl Hunt in NC), which reveal well that the system is flawed and makes some pretty heinous mistakes.

    Always remember too, that to convince people of racism in the cjs, you’re battling against two prominent beliefs simultaneously: that racial discrimination is not a hindrance for black folks today and that the cjs is a fair institution. A lot of Americans, esp whites, are very invested in these myths.

    • dudleysharp


      My first response had nothing to do with racism, but instead went to a real problem in this 4 part series by the students, that is the links and references are almost all anti death penalty in nature.

      From an academic and student perspective, this should not be tolerable.

      Looking at important public policy debates, particularly, in academia, should require and welcome a look at all sides of the issues.

      That is the only reason I posted that first post.

      With regard to racism and the death penalty, the series does the same thing. On virtually ever link or topic, posted by the students, there is a good balance of material that shows a very different perspective.

      Whether one accepts a perspective or not is irrelevant. The important, academic issue is whether students study them and present both sides to themselves, their audience and within the debate.

      • dudleysharp

        Ughh – a whole section of words was lost.

        try again:

        With regard to racism and the death penalty, the series does the same thing. On virtually ever link or topic, posted by the students, we are directed to an anti death penalty source.

        There is a good balance of material that shows a very different perspective.

    • Danielle D.

      Thanks so much Kristen and dudleysharp for helping my students with this project. We really appreciate it.

      For those of you interested, the US Supreme Court made an extremely rare move last Fall in ordering a federal judge in Georgia to review the strong evidence toward Mr. Davis’ innocence.

      From the SCOTUS blog:

      “The Supreme Court, over two Justices’ dissents, on Monday ordered a federal judge in Georgia to consider and rule on the claim of innocence in the murder case against Troy Anthony Davis (In re Davis, 08-1443) The Court told the District Court to “receive testimony and make findings of fact as to whether evidence that could have been obtained at the time of trial clearly establishes [Davis’] innocence.””

      You can read more here:

      Office MacPhail’s loved ones are not alone in holding on to the guilt of the convicted, despite much evidence to the contrary. Even in DNA exoneration cases where there is no doubt of the person’s innocence, families often cannot deal with the additional trauma of having a new trial, a new guilty party, etc.

      You can read more about this here:
      Gross, S. R., & Matheson, D. J. (2003). What they say at the end: Capital victims’ families and the press. Cornell Law Review, 88, 486-516.

      I am sure we can all agree that justice is not served when an innocent person is behind bars–or executed–for a crime she or he did not commit. The 252 people who have been exonerated through DNA evidence are a disturbing testament that the American justice system is not without flaws.

  5. marandaNJ

    I mentioned on another thread that I believe that capital punishment acts as a deterrent against further crime. And was heartily booed for being a racist.
    However, here’s the reality of the problem. First, black citizens often can’t afford a high falutin’ defense lawyer like many whites can. This makes a huge difference in that many whites will get off on a technicality and receive a lesser sentence. [Which reminds me of the joke: what do you call a bunch of lawyers tied together and pushed to the bottom of the ocean? A start.]
    Also, if they do get a defense attorney, he/she is usually black himself. This has a tendency to bias the jury as in the “Well, ‘they’ are blacks trying to escape the consequences of yet another black crime that we see committed via the media constantly.”
    How do I know this? Because I served jury duty once in this exact same situation. My city is fairly evenly divided between blacks and whites, and so was the jury. However, for whatever reason, when it came time to debate the verdict, there was a tendency of whites to find the defendent culpable and there was a tendency for the blacks to find the defendent innocent for lack of evidence.
    It was definitely dicey the whole way through the trial. It wasn’t a murder case, by the way. It was about whether a black man broke into a black woman’s car and stole some expensive items from the car. He was with other black men who were definitely found with the stolen items in their possession, but he claims he took nothing himself. Plus, the only “witnesses” to the entire scene were police officers [don’t know what race they were] who saw the whole scene From a Distance. The defendent had no prior convictions either.
    Thus, because of pre-verdict bias, That’s Probably Why there are More African Americans executed than Whites. By the way, the verdict was Not Guilty. My gut just told me the guy was hanging around his friends and they decided to commit a crime and he was just in the company of the perpetrators.
    I still don’t believe the death penalty is in and of itself the culprit here. I do know that most people who commit crimes come from a disadvantaged SES, but therein lies the Massive Problem. Because people come from a disadvanted background, should they be held Less Responsible than people who come from a middle class background like Many White Serial Killers? That’s a toughy. If you were brought up poor and forced to live by the code of the streets, via peer pressure and the need for acceptablity, should you be judged by the same standards as middle class citizens.
    Also, there was a segment on 60 Minutes [you won’t believe this so I’m including the youtube tape] where John Gotti Junior talks with the commentator about ‘life in the streets’ and how his father loved this life and that’s all he knew and that’s why he was basically a ba-a-ad guy. And the commentator was smiling as if this was all Entertainment. Talk about romanticizing crime. White Italian crime is comical and Just Being One of the Boys?
    Substitute a black man in the Same Video and use your imagination. The truth? You wouldn’t see a black man on 60 Minutes being Asked to discuss the ‘real reason’ the streets held such allure to these men. America would not find this amusing but rather horrifying. Now the Tony Sopranos of the world are considered bad but loveable both at the same time? This is why I was totally averse to that HBO show The Sopranos.
    In conclusion, it’s what transpires within the criminal justice system Before the executions that can be labeled racist, not the death penalty itself.

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