The crime occurred on August 19, 1989, in a primarily black neighborhood in Savannah, Georgia, in the parking lot of a Burger King where Officer Mark MacPhail was moonlighting as a security guard. MacPhail was shot as he ran to assist a homeless man who was being pistol-whipped for having asked for a beer. MacPhail didn't even have time to take his gun out of his holster. From the outset, there was no question that the killer was black.
In understanding the gross miscarriage of justice that ended in Troy Davis' execution one must take into account that the victim of the crime was a white man as well as a police officer.
Not only was this a crime, then, against those who enforce the law, but it also had the added element of a black-on-white offense that would guarantee a stiffer penalty from a jury.
One can empathize with the anger as well as the fear that MacPhail's fellow officers would feel about his being gunned down in this manner. What often happens, though, in such cases where there are no clues to solve the crime is that anger and fear harden into a determination to make someone pay for willful contempt of authority rather than undertaking the professional pursuit of justice that duty requires.
No doubt the Savannah police felt they had gotten a break in terms of who was going to "pay" when Sylvester "Redd" Coles walked into the station within days with his lawyer at his side and informed the officers that Troy Davis, an acquaintance of his, was the killer. Coles "knew" because he and Davis had been together at different times during that evening as well as at the murder scene.
On August 23, Davis, knowing that he was wanted, surrendered to the police. Two years later, in August of 1991, a jury declared him guilty after an hour's deliberation and, subsequently, handed down the death sentence after deliberating for three hours. He was executed on September 21, 2011, after being on death row for 20 years.
In our white-dominated, racist system of justice, the view of the black community is that of a monolithic mass, people who are indistinguishable one from the other. It really doesn't make much difference who is charged since they are all guilty -- guilty of being black.
It is obvious now, and must have been to those who worked in the justice system at the time, that the police, with one witness already in hand, set about the task of framing Davis.
Lacking forensic evidence connecting Davis to the crime, the police began threatening, intimidating, and coercing people who were at the scene or who lived in the neighborhood to sign affidavits written by law enforcement personnel that either asserted that Davis had confessed to them or that identified Davis in some way as the killer.
Surely, District Attorney Spencer Lawton as well as Superior Court Judge James W. Head knew that this was a "made" case. Robert Barker, Davis' lawyer, told the jury, "Prosecutors are relying on the testimony of a 'cast of characters' that include 'jail birds, felons, twice-convicted felons, who cannot be believed." (Savannah Morning News, 8/23/1991)
Law enforcement officers testified that a casing found at the Burger King scene matched two casings found at an earlier shooting that same night. It proved nothing since the murder weapon was never found.
Who, other than the defense attorney, was going to question this charade when the murder victim was a cop? Not the jury of seven blacks and five whites when Fraternal Order of Police members were sitting right there in the courtroom to insure that justice was done. Nor could one expect the slain officer's widow to question at any point his comrades' work or to voice doubts that might jeopardize her pension.
As Davis' case moved through the appeals process, more and more of the witnesses recanted their testimony, citing pressure from the police. Even the jailhouse snitch who had claimed at the trial that Troy had confessed to him while they were cellmates reported that no such conversation ever took place. "One of the jurors, Brenda Forrest, told CNN in 2009, recalling the trial of Davis, 'All of the witnesses ... they were able to ID him as the person who actually did it.' Since the seven witnesses recanted, she says: 'If I knew then what I know now, Troy Davis would not be on death row. The verdict would be not guilty.'" (9/16/2011 - Alternet .org)
The Innocence Project works to assist prisoners who appear to have been wrongly convicted. Its web site states, "The common themes that run through these cases -- from global problems like poverty and racial issues to criminal justice issues like eyewitness misidentification, invalid or improper forensic science, overzealous police and prosecutors and inept defense counsel -- cannot be ignored and continue to plague our criminal justice system."
[It is worth noting that of the 16 states that no longer invoke the death penalty, none are from the 11 slave-owning states that formed the Confederacy during the Civil War era.]