USA–Hang Your Head In Shame

Today, the USA should be hanging its head in shame for its killing of TROY DAVIS. He was convicted in 1991 of the 1989 killing of an off duty policeman. Those who know me or read my posts will be aware that I am totally opposed to the use of the death penalty in any circumstances. That however is not the reason for this post. The story of Troy Davis is disturbing and is a damning indictment of the USA and its Criminal Justice System.

The Daily Telegraph provides the following timeline of events. I reproduce it as a guide to what happened.

August 19, 1989: Off-duty white police officer Mark MacPhail is working as a security guard at a Burger King in Savannah, Georgia when he intervenes in an argument between several men in the parking lot. He is shot in the heart and face without having drawn his gun and dies instantly.

August 23, 1989: Troy Davis, a 20-year-old unemployed black man, is arrested after being implicated by a witness.

April 1990: Davis pleads not guilty at a preliminary hearing.

August 1991: The trial begins with prosecutors seeking the death penalty.

August 28, 1991: The jury, composed of seven blacks and five whites, finds Davis guilty after less than two hours of deliberation.

August 30, 1991: Davis has testified during the sentencing phase of the trial, maintaining his innocence, but the jury recommends the death penalty and he is sentenced to death.

March 1992: A first request for a new trial is denied.

March 1993: Georgia’s Supreme Court upholds the conviction and the sentence.

December 2001: Davis files an appeal with the US federal district court saying seven of nine original witnesses have recanted their testimony.

May 2004: A judge declines to consider the claim and rejects other claims about unfair jury selection, ineffective defence counsel and prosecutorial misconduct.

September 2006: The 11th Circuit Court upholds this decision on appeal saying Davis has failed to substantively prove his innocence or show his original trial was constitutionally unfair.

June 2007: Davis’s execution is set for July 17, 2007.

July 16, 2007: After appeals rain in from notaries including Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Pope Benedict XVI, the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles grants a 90-day stay of execution at the 11th hour.

August 2007: The Georgia Supreme Court grants Davis a discretionary appeal for a new trial on the basis of mistaken identity.

March 17, 2008: The Georgia Supreme Court denies the appeal by a 4-3 majority.

July 2008: Davis’s second execution date is scheduled for September 23, 2008.

September 23, 2008: The US Supreme Court issues a last minute emergency stay less than two hours before he is due to be put to death.

October 14, 2008: The US Supreme Court declines to hear Davis’s petition and sets a third execution date of October 27, 2008.

October 21, 2008: Lawyers for Davis request an emergency stay as rallies are held worldwide pleading for clemency.

October 24, 2008: The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals issues a stay of execution to consider a newly-filed habeas corpus petition.

December 9, 2008: A three-judge panel hears oral arguments at a hearing in Atlanta.

April 16, 2009: The panel denies Davis’s application by a 2-1 majority.

May 19, 2009: Davis files a petition for habeas corpus with the US Supreme Court.

August 17, 2009: In a rare move the US Supreme Court orders a Savannah federal district court to open a new hearing.

June 2010: A panel dismisses the appeal with Judge William Moore finding only one of the witness recantations wholly credible.

January 2011: Davis files a new appeal with the US Supreme Court.

March 2011: The appeal is rejected.

September 7, 2011: Georgia sets Davis’s fourth execution date for September 21, 2011.

September 20, 2011: The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles denies Davis’s last-ditch bid for clemency.

September 21, 2011: The five-member board refuses to reverse its decision and also denies a request to allow Davis to take a lie detector test to prove his innocence.

7:00 pm (2300 GMT): Davis scheduled time to be put to death is delayed by the Supreme Court, as the nine justices weigh a final stay of execution, which they deny three hours later.

11:08 pm (0308 GMT) Davis is pronounced dead after receiving a lethal injection, with MacPhail’s relatives looking on.


So,  why is this case so damning on the USA?

The case against Troy Davis consisted entirely of witness testimony which contained inconsistencies even at the time of the trial. Since then, all but two of the state’s non-police witnesses from the trial have recanted or contradicted their testimony.

Many of these witnesses have stated in sworn affidavits that they were pressured or coerced by police into testifying or signing statements against Troy Davis.

One of the two witnesses who has not recanted his testimony is Sylvester “Red” Coles — the principle alternative suspect, according to the defence, against whom there is new evidence implicating him as the gunman. Nine individuals have signed affidavits implicating Sylvester Coles.

You would have thought that where so many witnesses have recanted their evidence and even gone as  far as to swear affidavits to this effect, that the courts would at least order a retrial. Not in the USA though. This is not the first time the USA has refused to quash decisions that were clearly erroneous. The case of Cameron Todd Willingham is one such case

Cameron Todd Willingham

Of the 235 people put to death during the tenure of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the case of Cameron Todd Willingham might be the most controversial. Willingham was convicted and executed for the deaths of his three young daughters, who died in a fire at the family’s home. Prosecutors alleged that Willingham started the fire and killed the girls to cover up abuse; Willingham’s wife, who was not home at the time of the blaze, denied that he abused his children.

The crux of Willingham’s case, however, revolved around whether the fire was started on purpose at all. In 2004, a fire investigator, Gerald Hurst, looked into Willingham’s case. Hurst found multiple scientific errors in the initial report and concluded that there was no evidence of arson. A 2009 report by the Texas Forensic Science Commission would later come to the same conclusion.

The court also relied on the testimony of two psychologists who never met Willingham.

Despite the criticisms, both the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and Gov. Perry declined to halt Willingham’s execution. He was put to death in 2004.


There you have the state’s own forensic Science commission concluding there was no evidence of arson and still the prisoner is executed. This is not an expert instructed by the defence, but the state’s own body reaching the conclusion there was no evidence of arson!


Back to the case of Troy Davis. – we have 7 out of 9 civilian witnesses recanting. 1 of the remaining 2 is the primary alternative suspect. There must be some doubt about the conviction in those circumstances surely.

In 2007 Georgia’s State Board of Pardons and Paroles vowed publically to not permit an execution unless there is “no doubt” about guilt. So how do they square that vow with this case? Unless of course the vow was mere words and was only intended to “fool” people into supporting the death penalty in the false belief that only ironclad cases get the death penalty.

Death penalty supporters like Bob Barr, former Texas Governor Mark White, and former FBI Director William Sessions also supported clemency in this case, for the same reason.

And at least three jurors from Davis’ trial  asked for his execution to be called off


In August 2010, an appeal was heard.  US District Court Judge William Moore  addressed not whether the state could demonstrate a watertight case against Troy Davis, but whether Troy Davis could show “by clear and convincing evidence that no reasonable juror would have convicted him in the light of the new evidence” that has emerged since his 1991 trial for the murder in 1989 of Savannah police officer Mark Allen MacPhail.

The idea that someone has to prove they were innocent rather than the state having to prove someone is guilty is anathema to any right thinking person. It is also contrary to the basic human right not to be denied life of liberty except after a fair trial. i.e. that everyone has the right to freedom unless the state prove they are guilty of an offence. This is even more appalling when we are talking about the state killing someone because they cannot prove they are not guilty. It is a reverse of the accepted burden of proof.

Amnesty International had been urging people to contact the Georgia’s State Board of Pardons and Paroles  to urge them to stay the execution. The response of Georgia’s State Board of Pardons and Paroles  was to yesterday block emails sent via Amnesty International. So much for public opinion and public accountability.

The United States, according to Amnesty International, placed fifth in 2010’s global executions race, with 46 state-sanctioned killings of human beings. China came in first, with a death tally of 1,000-plus. Second-place Iran killed at least 252, North Korea in third snuffed 60, give or take a few, and Yemen pulled up fourth, killing 53, with maybe a few extra tossed in.

In Bad Company

In the past 10 years, 30 countries have outlawed the death penalty. Nations that considered the death penalty too barbaric, imprecise, antiquated or just plain immoral and stupid include Albania, Angola, Rwanda, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and the Vatican City. None of these countries have a Troy Davis problem today.

So much for being the world’s policeman! The USA should hang its head in shame that it is seen in the company of these countries.


To redress the balance of this post, I should state that:

  • I am not saying the decision here was based on race or anything of that nature.
  • I am also not saying that Troy Davis should not be punished for any offence he has committed.
  • Officer Mark MacPhail  was shot dead by someone and this should not be forgotten. The murderer deserves to be brought to justice
  • Two wrongs don’t make a right

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