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His name is Troy Anthony Davis and he is a Black man from Savannah Georgia on death row.

But don’t go by his name, the color of his skin, or the fact that he has been on death row for close to 20 years.

Because this is a story of what can possibly happen to you and me if we were to end up in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Add a screwed up legal system, and a dash of racism, and it could be a life in a maximum security prison, with years of no redemption.

Yes, don’t go by his name and the color of the skin. Read this story also because it could be that one time, your activism may be the difference between life and death.

Portrait of young Troy Davis.

Living the American Dream

She is 18 months older than him, but Martina Correia says her brother Troy and she can complete each other’s sentences. Before their life began to unravel in 1989, the Davis family lived their American dream. “My father, after he left the Military, was the Chatham County Sheriff’s Deputy. We had a brand new house, with two cars, a boat, our picket fence and dogs. We lived in a community full of middle class black people, played ball for the Police Athletic league. Troy became a junior coach. I was the tomboy but Troy was a mama’s boy. Very close to my mother, very protective of our family.

We were taught to be respectful to everyone and taught that you don’t lie, you don’t cheat and if you do something wrong, you own up.

When my sister was about 13 she suddenly became paralyzed from the neck down. Just like that..the doctors said she will never walk again. She stayed in the hospital for two years. I was in the Military, and Troy was the oldest child home. So when my sister got out of the hospital, my mother withdrew Troy from regular High School. He went to High School at night and graduated with Honors. During the day he would work and take care of my sister. He bathed her, did her hair, catheterized her, took her to physical therapy and all her doctor’s appointments. When she came home they wanted to give her an electric wheel chair. But Troy said she will walk. We got a manual wheel chair and he would take her out and tell her that if she wanted to get back to the house she will have to walk. When she graduated High School she walked across the stage with a walker because of Troy.

Troy Davis on Graduation Day

If you come to Savannah and ask anyone who really knew Troy, they will tell you how much people liked him. He is very bright. I was in the Military and he was getting ready to go into the Marine corps. We believed in God and the country.”

Troy was always the peace maker, says Martina, the problem solver in a conflict when people were fighting. He always tried to intervene and help resolve the disagreement. “In fact he told me, ‘ Tina if I wasn’t doing what I usually do and that’s trying to stop somebody from hurting somebody that night, I would not be here today.”

In the heat of a summer Night….

19 August 1989 - Bill Clinton was celebrating a birthday but unknown to him, that night, in Savannah, near the Greyhound Bus station, events were unfolding that would forever change the lives of two families who would have little to celebrate about that night or many years to come. Bill Clinton would later, in good faith, sign a bill that would ironically shut many doors for Troy Davis, and perhaps many more like him.

"Troy was always the peace maker, the problem solver in a conflict when people were fighting. In fact he told me, ‘ Tina if I wasn’t doing what I usually do and that’s trying to stop somebody from hurting somebody that night, I would not be here today.’”

The sequence of events remain murky and sticky like that night, since  stories have changed several times, as years and continuous media reports add to new twists and turns. But what has not changed is the fact that a young 27 year old Police Officer, Mark Allen MacPhail, lost his life in a senseless, brutal murder and Troy Davis was the young man who supposedly did it.

Journalist Patrick Rodgers
Patrick Rodgers, a journalist who moved to Savannah four years ago, described the events in a well researched story in the South Magazine, a bi-monthly out of Savannah, Georgia.

“In the early morning hours of Saturday, August 19, 1989, an urgent call went out across all of Savannah’s police and emergency response radio frequencies—an officer had been shot—and in a matter of minutes, units swarmed around the bus station parking lot from as far away as Oglethorpe Mall. Drenched in swirling red and blue siren light, and overwhelmed by emotion at the sight of a violently-executed colleague, police combed the area for witnesses and evidence. But as the sun slowly rose from the depths of the Atlantic to illuminate the west side of Oglethorpe Avenue, there were no concrete leads—just a pool of blood and a vague description of a black man in his early 20s, last seen running toward Yamacraw Village.

Twenty-five officers were assigned to the case, and 30 witnesses were quickly rounded up. A homeless man handed over several empty .38 caliber casings—the same caliber of weapon used in a shooting earlier that night at a pool party in Cloverdale, only a few blocks from Troy Davis’ residence; the same caliber weapon that Officer MacPhail was never able to remove from his holster before being shot fatally through the left side, a spot unprotected by his bulletproof vest.

Later that morning, Sylvester “Red” Coles turned up at the police station with his attorney. He had been part of the argument that precipitated MacPhail’s shooting and wanted to tell the police his story. Across town, Troy Davis woke up and began to check items off his list of errands for the day: According to his sister, Martina, he would then head over to her house for a dinner party before catching a ride to Atlanta with her and her husband to look for work.”

Officer Mark MacPhail
The officer, a young husband and father of a one year old girl, and a son who was only a few weeks old, had lost his own father at thirteen. He became the child who consoled his mother, made her smile and helped her get back on her feet. He was respected and loved by all who knew him. His senseless murder angered the police officers to such an extent that they had “Shoot to kill” orders as pictures of Troy, now rechristened the cop killer, and already condemned to being guilty even before he had been questioned flashed across the airwaves.

"To this day, they have not questioned Troy about what occurred that night when Troy went there."

Troy who had been excited by job prospects in Atlanta was told by his sister that there was a manhunt on for him. She says a perplexed Troy Davis decided to come home and turn himself in, because he said he had nothing to hide. “All our lives our friends had been police officers,” says Martina, “ We had never seen any thing that would have made us think that there would be any problems. It was a friend who was a Police Officer who Troy asked to be his arresting officer because they were telling us they had a “ Shoot to Kill” order out on him so his friend went with him. To this day, they have not questioned Troy about what occurred that night when Troy went there. They just asked, “Where is your gun?” and Troy said he doesn’t have a gun. That was the only question they asked. They never asked about the crime. Troy had turned himself in but they made it seem like he had been captured.”

Patrick Rodgers says that comment was corroborated by Troy’s lawyer and adds, “Troy was not asked the questions until he was brought in court and that is totally inexcusable. There is a report in the Savannah Morning News, that the day they brought him in, all of the Police officers were standing outside smiling and high-fiving each other and giving thumbs up to the media and were really exuberant. They were celebrating the fact that he had been caught. There was no “Well, we are just bringing him in for questioning or that this is phase one of the investigation.” As far as they were concerned the case was closed.”

Martina says that while the shell shocked family was trying to understand the ramifications of what had happened, people they trusted let them down. “There were these two Black guys who came to us and said they were representatives of Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow/Push Coalition. One of them was the Chaplain for the Police Department and they said they were here to help. Well it was my brother’s lawyers who told us that just because they were Black, was no reason to trust anyone because these two people went up and collected the reward for Troy turning himself in as if they had assisted in his “capture.”

Who Dunnit?

No murder weapon was found and there is no DNA or any other physical evidence linking Troy Davis to the murder or to an earlier shoot out that night which injured another young man Michael Cooper. Davis had been around with his friend D.D. Collins, and reportedly saw Coles intimidating Larry Young, and tried to reason with Coles, but left when Cole threatened him and asked him to leave. Davis’s conviction came because of the testimony of nine so called eye witnesses. Leading the eye witness Parade was Sylvester “Redd” Coles. Coles has been described by many who know him as a fearsome neighborhood thug . Other eye witnesses were either those who claimed to be present at the shooting or near the crime scene and those who claimed Troy had confessed to them that he had killed Mark MacPhail. What came to light soon after was the fact that Sylvester Coles supposedly had a similar .38 caliber gun, which had killed the police officer. Affidavits submitted much later from 3 people who did not testify at the Davis trial also claim that Coles, confessed to killing the officer after Davis was convicted.

Martina Correia, sister of death row inmate Troy Davis, speaks to reporters next to Jared Feuer (R), regional director for Amnesty International, outside Georgia’s Supreme Court in Atlanta. (Photo: Reuters/Matthew Bigg)
Patrick Rodgers writes in his article that in a discussion with Davis’s current lawyer Jason Ewart, “At some point there was an ‘Oh No!’ moment, when the police discovered that the person who may have fingered Davis had a caliber gun that had killed Officer MacPhail the night of the shooting, [something] that was withheld from them [by Coles],” but that “At that point, it was too late: Davis was the suspect. To go back and investigate someone else would have been politically tough to do…and there was no investigating any other suspect. There was no [police] questioning; there was no searching for the murder weapon; there was no searching anyone else’s house. His picture was the only one they showed in a photographic line up.”

Martina says she is convinced that the Police knew Troy was innocent, “but they had already turned the wheels in motion. Our family was never allowed inside the courtroom during the trial. They were able to be there only on the day he had been convicted and the prosecutors said they would seek the death penalty.” She also believes Coles is the one the Police should be questioning. “I talked to some body who knows Coles and who calls me to tell me where he is and I was told that when he is drunk he brags about the murder and no body does anything about it, but the demons are eating into him. He was shot a couple of times and people were surprised when I prayed that he would live. But for me to prove my brother is innocent I need for him to live.”

"Our family was never allowed inside the courtroom during the trial. They were able to be there only on the day he(Troy) had been convicted and the prosecutors said they would seek the death penalty."

A reporter who wishes to remain anonymous but has followed the case closely, says he feels there are three people who know what really happened that night-Redd Coles, Troy Davis and his friend D.D. Collins. While Troy Davis continues to maintain his innocence, from the very beginning, Coles and Collins refuse to talk to the media as did most of the witnesses who recanted their testimony. The murky timeline of the events of that night, the recanted eye witness statements, have ensured there is nothing black and white about this case. Add to that accusations of Police being blind sided by the intense pressure to find the killer of a fellow officer, and police coercion, and the plot thickens even more.

Troy Davis and his mother Virginia
And Injustice for All?

Two families are bound today by the thread of tragedy and disruption, of wanting closure.

There is the mother who lost her son to death, a wife who lost her best friend, and two children who have grown up fatherless. It was a telling statement says Rodgers when soon after Macphail’s funeral there was a fundraiser for his children and the woman in charge told people to give what they could now because down the road who will remember this murder and the Police officer who lost his life?

But no one reckoned with the woman from the second family, and her indomitable spirit who has made it her life’s crusade, for the past 19 years to save another mother-her own from losing her son. Martina left the Military to fight for her brother’s life and when no one else believed his innocence, she did. Her father died heartbroken 12 weeks after Troy was put on death row.

In an article written by Bill Rankin and Alan Judd for the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, in September 2003, the witness recant is clearly detailed.

“Most of the witnesses who have recanted their testimony claim police detectives, intent on getting Davis, intimidated them into implicating him. Several said they testified falsely because they feared the consequences of contradicting their earlier statements to police. One said two lawyers advised her she could go to prison for perjury if she changed her story.

During Davis’ trial, detectives denied pressuring witnesses. Savannah police spokesman Bucky Burnsed declined recently to address the witnesses’ allegations.

One witness who identified Davis as MacPhail’s killer was Antione Williams. But last year Williams signed a sworn statement saying he had "no idea what the person who shot the officer looks like."

In a recent interview, Williams said he did not want to testify at the trial but that authorities told him he must.

When the shooting started, Williams said, "I didn’t see the face. I saw the gun. I was too busy ducking, for my own safety."

Another witness, Dorothy Ferrell, had picked out Davis’ photo as the killer.

"Well, I’m real sure, positive sure, that that is him and, you know, it’s not a mistaken identity," Ferrell testified.

But in a Nov. 29, 2000, in an affidavit bearing her signature, Ferrell said: "I don’t know which of the guys did the shooting because I didn’t see that part. . . . When the police were talking to me, it was like they wanted me to say I saw the shooting and to sign a statement.

"I was still scared that if I didn’t cooperate with the detective, then he might find a way to have me locked up again," Ferrell, who was on parole in 1989, said in the affidavit.

Ferrell, now serving six years in prison for forgery, credit card theft and shoplifting, recently declined to discuss the affidavit with a reporter, except to deny having talked with Davis’ lawyers.

But Carol Gray, a former lawyer for Davis, said she took the sworn statement from Ferrell. David Mack, an investigator for Davis’ lawyers, said he also was present when Ferrell signed it.

When Ferrell said she was pressured to implicate Davis, "I thought, ’Wow, that’s powerful information,’ " said Gray, now a public defender in Massachusetts. "She was one of the most important witnesses against him."

Of the three men who said Davis confessed to killing MacPhail, two said they testified under police pressure.

"When it came time for Troy’s trial, the police made it clear to me that I needed to stick to my original statement, that is, what they wanted me to say, "Jeffrey Sapp, one of these two men, said in an affidavit signed Feb. 9.

In a recent interview, Sapp said, "None of that [testimony] was true."

The third man now says he testified falsely out of spite because Davis spit in his face during a jailhouse fight.

Davis’ lawyers have interviewed just one of the three other key eyewitnesses: Harriett Murray, who testified that she saw Davis blindside her boyfriend, striking him in the face with a pistol, then shoot MacPhail. Now her story is more ambiguous: In a statement last year to defense lawyers, she still said her boyfriend’s assailant had killed the officer, but she no longer named Davis.

One of the two remaining witnesses, Stephen Sanders, was at the Burger King with Air Force buddies but told police he wouldn’t recognize anyone at the scene except by their clothes. During the trial, though, he identified Davis as the killer.

"You don’t forget someone that stands over and shoots someone," Sanders testified.”

There have been questions about the integrity of the eye witnesses. Were they lying then or are they lying now in the recanted testimony? Either way, as Brenda Forrest, one of the jurors said in an interview, they are liars. Forrest however, was troubled enough to sign a sworn statement that said, "I have some serious doubts about the justness of Mr. Davis’ death sentence. I find it very troubling that the jury’s sentence was based upon incomplete and unreliable evidence. If I had been aware of this newly gathered evidence and had the benefit of it at trial, I would not have sentenced Mr. Davis to death." Three other jurors did the same.

Martina and Rodgers say that there is no reason for these eye witnesses to come forward now. They are not related to each other, they don’t cross paths, and they don’t work together. Why would they stick their necks out now and deal with all the hassles that go with it? And that’s where it gets touchy, says Rodgers.

"The prosecution that wanted us to believe that 20 years ago these witnesses were infallible and absolutely correct then, regardless of whether police coercion played a role in it, now those same witnesses are not to be trusted because time and empathy may have changed whatever they feel about the case now."

“The prosecution that wanted us to believe that 20 years ago these witnesses were infallible and absolutely correct then, regardless of whether police coercion played a role in it, now those same witnesses are not to be trusted because time and empathy may have changed whatever they feel about the case now.”

Patrick Rodgers was stunned by the fact that when Chatham County D.A. Spencer Lawton Jr. addressed the issue of Police coercion, instead of denying it, he indirectly admitted to it but then said something strange. Rodgers pulled out the quote and it says, “We’ve heard phrases like ‘I felt coerced,’ and ‘I told them what they wanted to hear,’ referring to police. Is there any reason to assume they didn’t feel subjected to exactly that kind of pressure from defense counsel when signing these affidavits?”

Rodgers adds, ‘It really blew me away that Lawton Jr. would not only acknowledge the fact that police coercion was a factor in the initial testimony but he would justify it by saying oh well they were probably coerced by the defense too, so that balances it out and we should still kill him(Troy). I think there are some very serious questions that can be raised about the conduct of the prosecutors during his tenure.”

Rodgers points to one of the most famous cases - the murder trial of Jim Williams that was the basis of the book “ Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” later made into a film by Clint Eastwood. That case was thrown out because of prosecutorial misconduct. Since 1977, five Georgians have been exonerated from death row and two were from Savannah. In 1978 there was a man named Earl Charles who was falsely accused of the murder of two furniture store owners and put on death row despite the fact that several months prior to the murder Charles had moved to Florida and his employer came and testified at the trial that he was at work that day and brought his time card as evidence. Police conduct led one of the detectives to falsify testimony. He also coerced the lone eye witness to identify Charles though she couldn’t identify him the several times she was shown his picture. He also traded an early release for a convicted felon, an acquaintance of Charles in return for testifying against him. Charles spent some years on death row and finally won a lawsuit in millions and a release from Chatham county.

In 1980 there was another case where a man , Gary Nelson was convicted of the rape and murder of a six year old and in that case the Savannah Crime Lab came and testified that hairs found at the crime scene matched Mr. Nelson’s even though they had never actually analyzed those piece of evidence. Nelson ended up spending 11 years on death row and was later unable to win any kind of restitution because it was called a “ harmless error” on the behalf of the prosecution.

“I think Murphy Davis from the Open Door Community(that rehabilitates exonerated death row inmates) phrased it best when she said, “ If you have two cases where Savannians were put on death row falsely and nearly executed, then when a third case comes around you know its worth looking into.”

For most of us Savannah is a beautiful tourist spot but for those who have taken a closer look at Savannah, the city has a darker, poor and more sinister underbelly. Rodgers knows that first hand. “While Savannah is a small city population wise, it really functions like a small town. There is a network of people who have been around for a long time. It’s a city that is very much fuelled by reputation. If you go to the website of the Savannah Morning news and do an article search on Troy Davis, you will see there is such animosity from readers, towards a person(Troy) who I assume is a complete stranger to them people. There are people who have said Troy Davis is no better than an animal and he deserves to die.”

Troy Davis with family members.
Martina says the family has been ostracized and vilified repeatedly. She remembers a particular incident 8-10 years ago when some acquaintances who didn’t know that Troy was her brother and were training at the Police Academy told her that as part of the training to protect themselves they were told about the Troy Davis case with such venom, that one didn’t have to know the man to despise him.

Rodgers adds there were many other things that were made up in the press over the years to paint a not so nice picture of Troy Davis. In fact when Rodgers began his investigation of the case a few months ago, his main source of information was the Savannah Morning News and reading all the reports he began to seriously doubt that Troy Davis was innocent as he claimed. “I had not spoken to Martina until then, nor had I read the Amnesty International report. I realized that the paper had been there right off the bat in 1989. Even before there was any substantial evidence, even before Troy had been arrested, they had been running his picture with the headlines - Cop Killer Wanted.”

In fact the only positive article that Rodgers found in the archives was buried in the middle of the paper while Troy Davis’s manhunt, so called capture and subsequent trial hogged front page news. “The tone of the article was almost one of shock, when the story ran the day the sentence was given. It was a surprise to her that the Davis family was not this ignorant, foul mouthed gang of hoodlums. They were in fact very polite, very well spoken about the case and so an interesting contrast to what had been usually published. But I doubt too many people read it since it was buried so deep.”


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