What’s the Rush?
By BOB HERBERT
Troy Davis, who was convicted of shooting a police officer to death in the parking lot of a Burger King in Savannah, Ga., is scheduled to be executed on Tuesday.
There is some question as to his guilt (even the pope has weighed in on this case), but the odds of Mr. Davis escaping the death penalty are very slim. Putting someone to death whose guilt is uncertain is always perverted, but there*s an extra dose of perversion in this case.
The United States Supreme Court is scheduled to make a decision on whether to hear a last-ditch appeal by Mr. Davis on Sept. 29. That’s six days after the state of Georgia plans to kill him.
Mr. Davis’s lawyers have tried desperately to have the execution postponed for those few days, but so far to no avail. Georgia is among the most cold-blooded of states when it comes to dispatching prisoners into eternity.
So the lawyers are now trying to get the Supreme Court to issue a stay, or decide before Tuesday on whether it will consider the appeal.
No one anywhere would benefit from killing Mr. Davis on Tuesday, as opposed to waiting a week to see how the Supreme Court rules. So why the rush? The murder happened in 1989, and Mr. Davis has been on death row for 17 years. Six or seven more days will hardly matter.
Most of the time, the court declines to hear such cases.
If that’s the decision this time, Georgia can get on with the dirty business of taking a human life. If the court agrees to hear the appeal, it would have an opportunity to get a little closer to the truth of what actually happened on the terrible night of Aug. 19, 1989, when Officer Mark Allen MacPhail was murdered.
He was shot as he went to the aid of a homeless man who was being pistol-whipped in the parking lot.
Nine witnesses testified against Mr. Davis at his trial in 1991, but seven of the nine have since changed their stories. One of the recanting witnesses, Dorothy Ferrell, said she was on parole when she testified and was afraid that she*d be sent back to prison if she didn*t agree to finger Mr. Davis.
She said in an affidavit: “I told the detective that Troy Davis was the shooter, even though the truth was that I didn’t know who shot the officer.”
Another witness, Darrell Collins, a teenager at the time of the murder, said the police had ‘scared’ him into falsely testifying by threatening to charge him as an accessory to the crime. He said they told him that he might never get out of prison.
“I didn’t want to go to jail because I didn’t do nothing wrong,” he said.
At least three witnesses who testified against Mr. Davis (and a number of others who were not part of the trial) have since said that a man named Sylvester “Redd” Coles admitted that he was the one who had killed the officer.
Mr. Coles, who was at the scene, and who, according to authorities, later ditched a gun of the same caliber as the murder weapon, is one of the two witnesses who have not recanted.
The other is a man who initially told investigators that he could not identify the killer. Nearly two years later, at the trial, he testified that the killer was Mr. Davis.
So we have here a mess that is difficult, perhaps impossible, to sort through in a way that will yield reliable answers. (The jury also convicted Mr. Davis of a nonfatal shooting earlier that same evening on testimony that was even more dubious.)
There was no physical evidence against Mr. Davis, and the murder weapon was never found. As for the witnesses, their testimony was obviously shaky in the extreme, not the sort of evidence you want to rely upon when putting someone to death.
In March, the State Supreme Court in Georgia, in a 4-to-3 decision, denied Mr. Davis’s request for a new trial. The chief justice, Leah Ward Sears, writing for the minority, said: “In this case, nearly every witness who identified Davis as the shooter at trial has now disclaimed his or her ability to do so reliably.”
Amnesty International conducted an extensive examination of the case, documenting the many recantations, inconsistencies, contradictions and unanswered questions. Its report on the case drew widespread attention, both in the U.S. and overseas.
William Sessions, a former director of the F.B.I., has said that a closer look at the case is warranted. And Pope Benedict XVI has urged authorities in Georgia to re-sentence Mr. Davis to life in prison.
Rushing to execute Mr. Davis on Tuesday makes no sense at all.