Troy Anthony Davis was an African American man convicted of and executed for the murder of police officer Mark MacPhail in Savannah, Georgia. Davis was on death row in Georgia for over 19 years – having already faced three execution dates – when he was executed on September 21, despite an international outcry over his execution.
In the early morning hours of August 19, 1989, several people including Troy Davis and Sylvester “Redd” Coles were hanging out near a Burger King parking lot adjoined to a Greyhound bus station in Savannah, Georgia. Coles started arguing with a homeless man named Larry Young, demanding that Young give him a beer. As Young walked away, he was pistol-whipped in the head. Police officer Mark MacPhail, serving off-duty as a security guard at the bus station, responded to a call for help. As he came running to Young’s aid he was shot and killed by the same man who had attacked Young. The day after the shooting, Coles went to the police station with his lawyer and said that Troy Davis was the shooter.
During Davis’s 1991 trial, the conviction rests primarily on nine key witnesses, but six have recanted and one contradicted her trial statement. The police recovered shell casings at the crime scene, which were naturally present given that there was a shooting. However, they never found a murder weapon or any other physical evidence linking the shell casings to Troy Davis.
One of the two witnesses who did not recant his testimony has been implicated in at least nine affidavits and by a new eyewitness account as being the actual perpetrator. This very same man, Sylvester “Redd” Coles, was the one who first reported to the police that Davis was the shooter. He was never treated as a suspect himself.
Davis maintained his innocence up to his execution.
Troy Davis was the eldest child of Korean War veteran Joseph Davis and hospital worker Virginia Davis. His parents divorced when Davis was very young. He grew up with four siblings in the predominantly Black, middle-class neighborhood of Cloverdale in Savannah, Georgia.
Davis attended Windsor Forest High School, but dropped out in his junior year so he could drive his disabled younger sister to her rehabilitation. He obtained his high-school equivalency diploma from Richard Arnold Education Center in 1987. Davis’s nickname at the time was “Rah,” or “Rough as Hell,” but some neighbors reported that it did not reflect his behavior; they described him as a “straight-up fellow” who acted as a big brother to local children.
In July 1988, Davis pleaded guilty to carrying a concealed weapon; he was fined $250 as part of a plea agreement in which a charge of possession of a gun with altered serial numbers was dropped.
Davis worked as a drill technician before becoming a coach in the Savannah Police Athletic League, and had signed up for service in the United States Marine Corps.
On the evening of August 18, 1989, Davis attended a pool party in the Cloverdale neighborhood of Savannah, Georgia. As he left the party with his friend Daryl Collins, the occupants of a passing car yelled obscenities. A bullet was fired at the passing car and Michael Cooper, a passenger, was struck in the jaw. Davis and Collins then went to a pool hall on Oglethorpe Avenue in the Yamacraw Village section of Savannah.
Later that evening, Davis and Collins proceeded to the parking lot of a Burger King restaurant on Oglethorpe Avenue, not far from the pool hall. There they encountered Sylvester “Redd” Coles arguing with a homeless man, Larry Young, over alcohol.
At about 1:15 am on August 19, 1989, Mark MacPhail, an off-duty police officer who was working as a security guard at the Burger King, attempted to intervene in the pistol-whipping of Young at the parking lot. MacPhail was shot twice: once through the heart and once in the face. He did not draw his gun. Bullets and shell casings which were determined to have come from a .38-caliber pistol were retrieved from the crime scene. Witnesses to the shooting agreed that a man in a white shirt had struck Young and then shot MacPhail.
On August 19, Coles told Savannah Police he had seen Davis with a .38-caliber pistol, and that Davis had assaulted Young. The same evening, Davis drove to Atlanta with his sister. In the early morning of August 20, 1989, Savannah Police searched the Davis home and seized a pair of Davis’s shorts, found in a clothes dryer and reportedly stained with blood. Davis’s family began negotiating with police, motivated by concerns about his safety. On August 23, 1989, Davis returned to Savannah, surrendered himself to police and was charged with MacPhail’s murder.
On November 15, 1989, a grand jury indicted Davis for murder, assaulting Larry Young with a pistol, shooting Michael Cooper, obstructing MacPhail in performance of his duty and possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime. Davis pleaded not guilty in April 1990.
In November 1990, the presiding judge excluded forensic evidence from the pair of shorts seized at the Davis home. The judge ruled that Davis’s mother did “not freely and voluntarily grant the police the right to search her home.” She had testified that police officers had threatened to break down her door unless she let them into her home. The Georgia Supreme Court upheld the exclusion of the evidence in May 1991, saying that the police should have obtained a search warrant.
Davis was brought to trial in August 1991.
The prosecution claimed that Davis had shot Cooper in Cloverdale, then met up with Redd Coles at a pool hall, pistol-whipped the homeless man Larry Young in the parking lot and then killed Mark MacPhail.
In total, thirty four witnesses testified at trial for the prosecution.
The prosecution did not produce a weapon (neither the gun which Davis was said to have used nor the gun owned by Coles) as evidence. A ballistics expert testified that the .38 caliber bullet that killed MacPhail could have been fired from the same gun that wounded Cooper. He also stated that he was confident that .38 casings found at Cloverdale matched bullet casings found near the scene of MacPhail’s shooting.
Davis denied shooting Cooper and denied shooting MacPhail. Davis testified to having seen Coles assault Young, and Davis said that he had fled the scene before any shots were fired and, therefore, did not know who had shot MacPhail.
Six witnesses, including Davis, testified at trial for the defense. Davis’s mother testified that Davis had been at home on August 19, 1989, until he left for Atlanta with his sister at about 9 pm.
On August 28, 1991, the jury took under two hours to find Davis guilty of murder, aggravated assault, possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony and obstruction of a law enforcement officer.
The prosecution sought the death penalty during sentencing proceedings for the murder conviction. Davis and three of his family members testified on Davis’s behalf. In a final address to the jury, Davis pleaded, “Spare my life. Just give me a second chance. That’s all I ask.” He told jurors he was convicted for “offenses I didn’t commit.” MacPhail’s family members and friends were not allowed to testify. On August 30, 1991, after seven hours of deliberation, the jury recommended the death penalty and Davis was sentenced to death.
In the 20 years between his conviction and execution, Davis and his defenders secured support from the public, celebrities, and human rights groups. Amnesty International and other groups such as National Association for the Advancement of Colored People took up Davis’s cause. Prominent politicians and leaders, including former President Jimmy Carter, Rev. Al Sharpton, Pope Benedict XVI, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former U.S. Congressman from Georgia and presidential candidate Bob Barr, and former FBI Director and judge William S. Sessions called upon the courts to grant Davis a new trial or evidentiary hearing. In July 2007, September 2008, and October 2008, execution dates were scheduled, but each execution was stayed shortly before it was to take place.
In 2009, the Supreme Court of the United States ordered the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia to consider whether new evidence “that could not have been obtained at the time of trial clearly establishes [Davis’s] innocence.” The evidentiary hearing was held in June 2010, and in August 2010, the conviction was upheld. The court described defense efforts to upset the conviction as “largely smoke and mirrors” and found that several of the proffered affidavits were not recantations at all. Subsequent appeals, including to the Supreme Court, were rejected, and a fourth execution date was set for September 21, 2011.
Nearly one million people signed petitions urging the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant clemency. The Board denied clemency and, on September 21, it refused to reconsider its decision. After a last minute appeal to the United States Supreme Court was denied, the sentence was carried out through lethal injection on September 21, 2011 at 10:53 pm EDT.
According to the Guardian newspaper, there were 10 reasons why the board should have granted clemency:
1. Of the nine witnesses who appeared at Davis’s 1991 trial who said they had seen Davis beating up a homeless man in a dispute over a bottle of beer and then shooting to death a police officer, Mark MacPhail, who was acting as a good Samaritan, seven have since recanted their evidence.
2. One of those who recanted, Antoine Williams, subsequently revealed they had no idea who shot the officer and that they were illiterate – meaning they could not read the police statements that they had signed at the time of the murder in 1989. Others said they had falsely testified that they had overheard Davis confess to the murder.
3. Many of those who retracted their evidence said that they had been cajoled by police into testifying against Davis. Some said they had been threatened with being put on trial themselves if they did not co-operate.
4. Of the two of the nine key witnesses who have not changed their story publicly, one has kept silent for the past 20 years and refuses to talk, and the other is Sylvester Coles. Coles was the man who first came forward to police and implicated Davis as the killer. But over the past 20 years evidence has grown that Coles himself may be the gunman and that he was fingering Davis to save his own skin.
5. In total, nine people have come forward with evidence that implicates Coles. Most recently, on Monday the George Board of Pardons and Paroles heard from Quiana Glover who told the panel that in June 2009 she had heard Coles, who had been drinking heavily, confess to the murder of MacPhail.
6. Apart from the witness evidence, most of which has since been cast into doubt, there was no forensic evidence gathered that links Davis to the killing.
7. In particular, there is no DNA evidence of any sort. The human rights group the Constitution Project points out that three-quarters of those prisoners who have been exonerated and declared innocent in the US were convicted at least in part on the basis of faulty eyewitness testimony.
8. No gun was ever found connected to the murder. Coles later admitted that he owned the same type of .38-calibre gun that had delivered the fatal bullets, but that he had given it away to another man earlier on the night of the shooting.
9. Higher courts in the US have repeatedly refused to grant Davis a retrial on the grounds that he had failed to “prove his innocence”. His supporters counter that where the ultimate penalty is at stake, it should be for the courts to be beyond any reasonable doubt of his guilt.
10. Even if you set aside the issue of Davis’s innocence or guilt, the manner of his execution tonight is cruel and unnatural. If the execution goes ahead as expected, it would be the fourth scheduled execution date for this prisoner. In 2008 he was given a stay just 90 minutes before he was set to die. Experts in death row say such multiple experiences with imminent death is tantamount to torture.
In his final words, Davis maintained his innocence, saying:
“Well, first of all I’d like to address the MacPhail family. I’d like to let you all know, despite the situation – I know all of you are still convinced that I’m the person that killed your father, your son and your brother, but I am innocent. The incident that happened that night was not my fault. I did not have a gun that night. I did not shoot your family member. But I am so sorry for your loss. I really am – sincerely. All I can ask is that each of you look deeper into this case, so that you really will finally see the truth. I ask my family and friends that you all continue to pray, that you all continue to forgive. Continue to fight this fight. For those about to take my life, may God have mercy on all of your souls. God bless you all.”
Davis was declared dead at 11:08 pm EDT.
Twitter recorded 7671 tweets per second in the moments before word of Davis’s execution, making his death the second most active Twitter event in 2011.
His funeral was attended by more than 1,000 people in Savannah, Georgia, on October 1.
On the 2nd anniversary of Davis’s execution, Haymarket Books released I Am Troy Davis, a book co-authored by human rights activist Jen Marlowe, and Davis’s sister, Martina Davis-Correia, with the participation of Troy Davis himself.