It is said that prisons are full of innocent men. Virtually no prisoners ever admit to guilt. Many believe that Troy Davis, a Savannah man convicted of the 1989 murder of an off-duty police officer, may be a truly innocent man.
Davis, nicknamed “Rah” for “rough as hell” by neighborhood kids, was actually a nice person his neighbors told the Savannah Morning News at the time. Neighbors said he was “like a big brother” to local children, but according to a former teacher he was “a dumb kid and a worse student.” Davis had pled guilty to carrying a concealed weapon in 1988 and, according a Morning News article, had been arrested for eluding an officer in a high speed chase several months before the shootings.
The case stems from the events of August 19, 1989 in Savannah. According to Savannah Now, Davis attended a party where he allegedly shot Michael Cooper in the face. After leaving the party, Davis became involved in an argument with Larry Young, a homeless man, and Sylvester “Red” Coles.
At some point, Mark Allen MacPhail, an off-duty, uniformed police officer who was working security at a local Burger King, attempted to intervene and was shot. MacPhail did not draw his own weapon and was shot twice, once in the heart and once in the face. Davis also allegedly pistol whipped Young. Davis claims that he left the scene before the shooting and ultimately left Savannah for Atlanta.
Coles, who claimed that he was the one who fled, told police the next day that Davis had shot MacPhail. Police converged on Davis’ house and searched it, taking a pair of Davis’ shorts. The shorts, which reportedly contained blood, were not allowed to be admitted as evidence because the judge ruled that the warrantless search was not necessary according to the Savannah Morning News. Davis returned to Savannah and surrendered to police on August 23, 1989.
The murder weapon was never recovered, but a ballistics expert testified that both Cooper and MacPhail could have been shot with the same gun. According to Amnesty International, the shell casings from the party matched one found by a homeless man at the Burger King. Much of the prosecution’s case was based on the testimony of witnesses who either specifically named Davis as the killer or who identified him by the white shirt that he wore that night. At the time, there seemed to be little question of Davis’ guilt, although he proclaimed his innocence in court and denied admitting the shootings to anyone.
At the trial, Harriette Murray, Larry Young’s girlfriend, stated that “Davis was the same person who hit Larry and shot the police [officer]” according to the Morning News coverage. She stated that Davis was wearing a white shirt.
In the same article, Coles, who said he wore a yellow shirt that night, also said that Davis hit Young. Coles said that Davis had carried a .38 pistol earlier at a pool hall. Coles said that he heard the first shot and started running. Coles admitted to owning a chrome .38, but said that he did not have the gun in his possession at the time of the shooting.
Other witnesses included Kevin McQueen, who claimed that Davis confessed to the killing while playing basketball in jail, and Michael Cooper, who said that Davis had argued with one of his friends at the party. The Morning News said Cooper did not know who shot him, but that Davis didn’t “know me well enough to shoot me.” Benjamin Gordon testified that the man who shot Cooper wore a white shirt and blue shorts, similar to Davis’ attire. Darrell Collins, who was with Davis at the party and at Burger King, said that Davis shot at the car carrying Cooper. Dorothy Ferrell identified Davis in court as the man who shot MacPhail. Both Gordon and Collins changed their stories on cross examination.
According to Savannah Now, there were other witnesses as well. Jeffrey Sapp testified that Davis had admitted shooting the officer in self-defense. Antoine Williams, who worked at the Burger King, and two Air Force enlisted men, Stephen Sanders and Robert Grizzard, agreed that the man who hit Young shot MacPhail. Williams and Sanders agreed with Murray and Ferrell that Davis was the killer.
Amnesty International cites three more witnesses: Monty Holmes, Larry Young, the homeless man, and Darrell Kinsman, another Air Force member. Kinsman could not identify the shooter, but said that the gun had a shiny finish and that the shooter held the gun in his left hand. Davis is right handed. Young identified Davis as the man who assaulted him by the color of his clothing. Holmes said that Davis admitted to him that he shot MacPhail.
Davis was convicted in the shootings of both Cooper and MacPhail, as well as the assault on Young. Since the trial in 1991, almost all of these witnesses have signed affidavits recanting their testimonies. In most cases, they claim that the police pressured or coerced them into testifying against Davis. Sylvester Coles, Harriette Murray, and Stephen Sanders have never recanted their testimonies.
Davis’ conviction predictably led to numerous appeals at both the state and federal levels. After the recantations and the new testimony from several witnesses that implicated Coles, the case garnered international attention. Celebrities from the Pope to Jimmy Carter to Bob Barr, a former Georgia congressman and presidential candidate, and William Sessions, a former FBI director, spoke out on Davis’ behalf.
In contrast to defense claims that the new evidence has not been heard, last year Davis was granted a hearing by the Supreme Court to prove his innocence, the first such hearing in 50 years according to the Atlanta Journal. At the hearing in federal court, the defense failed to subpoena Coles, so Judge William Moore did not allow hearsay evidence from witnesses who claimed that Coles had confessed to the killing.
In addition to not calling Coles to testify, the defense also did not call Larry Young and Dorothy Ferrell, two of the prosecution’s most important witnesses and who had by then recanted, to testify. Therefore, the judge could not examine their credibility. According to a Law.com article, Judge Moore called the recantations of Sapp and Collins “impossible to believe” and noted that Murray and Williams did not say that they lied at the trial or that they were coerced. The hearing in front of Judge Moore was Davis’ big chance to prove his innocence and the defense blew it.
Defense claims that Davis is innocent rely solely on the recanted testimonies of the witnesses. By definition, a witness who recants has lied and is no longer credible. The question that the courts must determine is whether the lie took place in the original trial or in the affidavit where the witness claimed to lie at the trial. It is not unreasonable to believe that Davis’ friends, who originally testified against him, want to prevent his execution 22 years later.
The recanted testimonies do nothing to challenge the physical evidence in the case. The fact that that the shell casings from the party where Michael Cooper was shot were a match for the shell casings from the Burger King where Officer MacPhail was shot is a damning piece of evidence. No one has alleged that Sylvester Coles, the only other suspect, was present at the party where Cooper was shot. This makes Davis the only viable suspect.
Davis’ shorts that were not admissible in his original trial were presented as evidence in the 2010 hearing. According to a WSAV report, a GBI report from 2007 indicated that there was a small amount of blood on the shorts, but not enough to do a DNA test. Even though the shell casings matched, the bullets taken from Cooper and MacPhail could not be conclusively matched.
For his part, Spencer Lawton, the Chatham County prosecutor who tried the case, told WTOC, a Savannah television station, in 2008 that he remains convinced of Davis’ guilt. Lawton says that the shell casings from the party shooting “exactly matched the shooting of Officer MacPhail” and that the defense wants “to condemn a fella [sic] named Coles on far less evidence than [on which] Davis was condemned.”
The date for his execution has been set three times previously, but was stayed by courts. It is unlikely that a court will intervene again to delay Davis’ execution after the failure to prove his innocence in 2010. The Georgia Parole Board will meet today to consider his case. If it denies his appeal for clemency, there will be few options left for Davis.
We will never know why Troy Davis, a “straight up fella,” shot and killed Mark MacPhail outside the Burger King that night in 1989, but the evidence is that he did.