A Death-Row Drama in Georgia

Georgia’s planned execution of Troy Davis, set for Wednesday, is drawing protests from around the world because of grave doubts that he actually committed the murder of an off-duty policeman 22 years ago. Dennis Bernstein explores the case in an interview with the NAACP’s Benjamin Todd Jealous.

By Dennis Bernstein

Georgia’s planned execution of Troy Davis, set for Wednesday, is drawing protests from around the world because of grave doubts that he actually committed the murder of an off-duty policeman 22 years ago. Dennis Bernstein explores the case in an interview with the NAACP’s Benjamin Todd Jealous.

If the State of Georgia has it way, Troy Anthony Davis with be executed for a murder that a growing mountain of evidence suggests he did not commit. Davis is set to be executed on Wednesday unless the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole votes to commute his sentence.

The Georgia Board heard testimony from the government and the defense on Monday during a formal clemency hearing, and will announce the results on Tuesday.

Davis was convicted on the basis of witness testimony in which seven of the nine original witnesses have recanted or made major changes in their testimony. Other witnesses have also come forward casting doubt on Davis’s guilt. Davis has faced down three previous execution dates.

At last count, over 800,000 people have signed a petition calling for Davis’s death sentence to be commuted.

The following is an interview I conducted last Thursday with Benjamin Todd Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP, about the potential Georgia state slaying of a man who appears to be innocent.Jealous has also served as president of the Rosenberg Foundation, and Director of the U.S. Human Rights Program at Amnesty International.

DB:  You said recently, after reviewing the evidence that you were convinced that Troy Davis is an innocent man. You said: “It is appalling to me that with so much doubt surrounding the case, Mr. Davis is set to be executed.” Well, Troy Davis is set to be murdered by the state, in a few days, and there remains very little time. You say you are appalled by the situation. What do you find most appalling, why do you believe that the state is about to murder an innocent man?

BTJ:  Twenty-two years ago, there was a tragedy in the state of Georgia. An off duty officer, trying to do his duty and keep the community safe was killed as he tried to protect a homeless man. 

There were multiple suspects, but eventually nine people came forward and said that one man did it. They said that Troy Davis did it. And those nine voices put him on death row. There was no physical evidence. Troy maintained his innocence, as he has for over two decades. There were lots of rumors in the community. But the nine folks who came forward all pointed to Troy. 

Fast forward to where we are today, seven of those folks now say that they lied. The folks who were there, of those seven the ones who were actually there, who weren’t just coerced into saying what they said by the cops as three of them claim to have been, or just lied outright. 

But the ones amongst those seven who actually said that they saw the killer, they said that the killer is one of the two suspects who have not recanted. Some of the seven say that they lied because they were afraid of him. This man’s named is Sylvester Coles.

And so here we are, twenty years later, Troy has had three execution dates, this is now his fourth. This one appears to be his final. It goes to the Board of Pardons and Parole on Monday. 

In front of them are letters from not just Archbishop Tutu, or the Pope himself, or from former President Jimmy Carter, sort of favorite son of Georgia, but also from Bill Sessions, former head of the FBI, Roy Thompson, number two in the Department of Justice, under George W. Bush, Tim Lewis, former U.S. court of appeals judge appointed by President Bush one, and so forth. 

And so this is not about sort of what’s left or right, it’s about what’s correct. And what’s correct is that when it appears that our justice system is about to execute somebody who is innocent, we all stand up and say “No.”

DB: Let’s go back to the seven out of nine witnesses that recanted. You said Mr. Sylvester Coles was one of the two witnesses that did not recant, and tried to intimidate others into silence

BTJ:  Yes.

DB: Now how does a prosecution tolerate a situation where you have a witness intimating other witnesses? What do we know about the prosecution’s process here in terms of how a witness, who may well have been the murderer, can get away with intimating other witnesses in a state murder case. Help us understand more about that.

BTJ:  Let’s go to the psychology of the moment. In cases like this where an officer has been killed there is often a lot of pressure to find the killer quickly, at any cost. And so once a mindset developed, it was very quickly, within a day amongst Savannah P.D. that Troy Davis was it.. 

They quickly made the facts fit that conclusion, rather than make the conclusion fit the facts. And so you see a very kind of, powerful rush to judgment.

When you listen to the witnesses who have come forward, recanted their testimony, or folks who were silent at the time, some of them minors still in their parent’s house, and the parents wouldn’t let them talk.  They say that people were afraid of Sylvester Coles. 

You know that it was very clear to people that they needed to lie on his behalf, and they say that they did because they feared him. Or in some cases, they did, like in three cases, they said they lied because the cops coerced them. 

All in all, that’s Savannah of that era, it’s that is and really today is a very problematic law enforcement culture. Savannah is one of 159 counties in Georgia. And yet about three out of ten death row exonerations in the state come from that county. All of them black men. This is a county in which it seems, that in some instances, any black man will do. 

And that’s why this is such an urgent case for justice. It’s why its got such wide spread attention. It is why it has caused so much doubt, again from the former head of the FBI to the Pope, and we at the NWACP who have been involved in this case for years are very clear, this is an exceptional case, and therefore we’re calling the people you go to our web site nwacp.org, sign the petition. 

Or simply pull out your cell phone and dial 62227, type the word “troy” and that will sign you on. And you know, right now we’re about 600,000 people, we’re trying to get up to over one million. We’re working with Amnesty, ACLU, a bunch of other groups, change.org.

 But the easiest thing you can do is pull out your cell phone, just dial 62227 type the word “troy”that will sign you on, and make sure your voice is heard. When our country is stumbling towards executing an innocent person it is incumbent on every citizen to stand up and let their voice be heard.

DB: Now I don’t want to belabor the point Mr. Jealous, but if you have a witness who is able to intimidate other witnesses, in the context of a murder prosecution, it seems to pollute the process. I’d like to understand more about how this process could be allowed to go forward and how the prosecutors and the police wouldn’t know that this other guy is a potential suspect.  

BTJ: What is more difficult to understand is how now that it’s all out there, the D.A. standing silently, signing the death warrant, even though the federal court said that the case against Mr. Troy is far from iron clad. 

Even though, you know, we have reason to believe that if it came in front of the D.A. today he himself has come to the conclusion that he would not bring it to a death penalty case; why he isn’t reopening the case, why he isn’t saying to the judge “Vacate the death warrant, let’s reopen the case and make sure we have the right person behind bars.” 

The reality is, those of us who are interested in justice aren’t just interested in making sure the wrong person doesn’t get executed. We also have to be interested in making sure that the right person is behind bars. 

Too many of our poor communities are not just are far from murder free zones, they become free to murder zones. Where it’s very easy for the actual killer to get away with the crime. And this is just one more of those cases, the tragic thing is in this case, we actually put somebody in for the crime. 

It was the wrong person, and now he may be killed by our state and, therefore, by all of us as taxpayers, if you will, next Wednesday. 

DB:  And also, if in fact he is not the murderer, the murderer goes free. 

BTJ:  The murderer has been free for 22 years. 

DB:  Now in his statement to the NWACP this year, Barack Obama said “The causes that you champion are the ones that drew me to public office in the first place, and they are the ones that sustain me every day in this office.” I haven’t heard the President speaking out on this issue, trying to save the life of this innocent man. Has the NWACP reached out to him, why the silence?

BTJ: You know, there is nothing the President of the United States can do in a state court case. If it was federal courts, we’d be focused on him, like we’re focused on the state of Georgia and the Board of Pardons and Paroles. But it’s not a federal case, it’s a state case. 

President Obama gets these issues; one the reasons why so many people in the human rights community became fans of his when he was in the state legislature is that he championed legislation to make it illegal, and basically impossible for cops to torture witnesses and violently abuse witnesses, and put cameras into interrogation rooms. 

Make sure that every interrogation entered into court had to be videotaped, and so forth. And so we have a president who gets it and we have a Department of Justice that gets it.

DB:  Alright, finally for you sir, what is at the core of this case? What does it mean, what will it mean if the United States of America, and the state of Georgia executes an innocent man. What does that say about the system and about what’s happening here in this country?

BTJ: If Troy Davis is executed, no one should be ever able to lie again and say that our country does not execute innocent people. We saw it with Odell in Virginia, we saw it with Graham in Texas. We know mathematically that there have to have been many more given all of the exonerations; there is a wave of DNA, releasing people from prison and from death row that’s been going on for the last decade or more.

And so, the reality is that we as a country have to come to terms with the fact that we are the only country in the West that still does this. And that we do it, quite frankly, with an unexpectedly high degree of error 

DB:  And poor people, and people of color, are the ones who end upyou know, when you go into the prisons, when you look at death row, it’s like white people don’t do these kinds of things.

BTJ: Well, I mean when you go into, what you see is a disproportionate of black, you see that it’s almost exclusively poor, you do see a lot of white people on death row. They are all poor white people. And the reality is that when you actually look at the exonerations they are even more disproportionately black men. 

In other words, the bar that this country sets for convicting a black man seems to be much lower than it is, even for a poor white person. 

And so in reality, yeah absolutely, you know, who gets executed in this country has less to do with what they did, and more to do with where they live, which side of the tracks they were born on, what color they are, even what gender they are. We are much more reluctant to execute women even when they commit the same crime.

So yeah, it’s grossly unfair, but the reality is that today, and for the next several days, what we are focused on, really it doesn’t matter whether you support the death penalty or not.

Everybody in this country, no matter what they feel about the issue, should be completely opposed to us executing somebody when there is such a wide shadow of doubt as there is in the Troy Davis case. That’s why if you text “troy” to 62227 you are not saying how you feel about the issue, it’s just saying don’t execute a man who didn’t do the crime. 

Dennis Bernstein is a host of “Flashpoints” on the Pacifica radio network. You can access the audio archives at www.flashpoints.net. You can get in touch with the author at [email protected]

4 comments for “A Death-Row Drama in Georgia

  1. Robert Blake
    September 21, 2011 at 23:01

    I agree with the Colonel. This isn’t a civil rights issue. It isn’t a morality issue. It isn’t a race issue. It might be a fairness and justice issue, but above all else, it’s a LEADERSHIP issue. And the specific aspect of that is, NATIONAL SECURITY. Who do you think are fighting our wars? They are poor white rural kids and inner-city minority kids. While you are sitting at home with your remote control watching Hannity, Limbaugh and O’Riley, and stuffing CheezIts into your face, that guy is dealing with black, minority and poor kids that got screwed by the people you voted for. And those kids, deep down, aren’t stupid enough to not realize they’re getting screwed. Unfortunately for you, The Army actually works hard at trying to provide these kids with an education.

    So, do you really think it’s a good idea to piss off the kids we’re sending over there to get blown up just so you can stuff CheezIts into your face and quote Robert Blake? Keep in mind, most of them will come home someday, and people like you will have to deal with how satisfied they are with their, “slice of the pie”. Their slice of the pie won’t be big enough. As long as, “Supporting the Troops” means putting one of those stupid yellow ribbons on the back of your SUV, I guess you’ll be happy. But trust me, those troops aren’t stupid, and they don’t fall for false patriotism.

    On top of everything else, they are extremely good at doing things that would give your couch-potato ass REALLY bad dreams. So, I suggest you listen to the old Colonel.

  2. randy wilson
    September 21, 2011 at 19:32

    if you do the crime u must face the crime i dont care whet color you are

  3. Colonel, U.S. Army
    September 20, 2011 at 20:31

    I left a comment at the change.org website. I’m not exactly sure what I said, because there didn’t seem to be a way to go back and see my own comment. But more or less, this is what I said:

    “Eyewitness testimony is the LEAST reliable evidence there is. It is too easy to convict a black person of ANYTHING in this country. I am white, but I am FED UP with the clandestine racism.”

    I don’t think this execution will be a victory for justice. I wish this story on Consortium News had come out sooner, so I had been able to sign it BEFORE the board decided. There is no way to remedy an unjust execution: death is forever. If there is uncertainty, Humanity should prevail.

    Name Witheld,
    Colonel, U.S. Army

    • Colonel, U. S. Army
      September 21, 2011 at 00:21

      Yes, I realize there are some significant grammatical and syntactical errors in the note I wrote above. You can chalk that up to how pissed off I was when I found out about this. You may not be white, but if a you are, and a black person ever saved your life, you’d feel like me. Yes, I really am a Colonel in The United States Army. And I am REALLY pissed off.

      Very Respectfully,
      Yours Truly

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