US execution puts death penalty on trial

Troy Davis is set to die in under a week but advocates say there is ‘too much doubt’ to condemn him to death.

Troy Davis support solidarity
A global campaign is asking the Georgia to commute Davis’ sentence from death to life imprisonment [WCADP]

Troy Davis is waiting in his jail cell, hoping his advocates outside can convince the US State of Georgia not to execute him according to its schedule on Wednesday, September 21.

Davis, now 42, was convicted in 1991 of the 1989 killing of Mark MacPhail, an off-duty police officer who was working an overnight job as a bus station security guard when he was shot dead while intervening in an argument.

The 1991 trial put Davis, who has always maintained his innocence, on death row based on the testimony of nine witnesses and no physical evidence.

Since the trial, seven of the nine witnesses have changed their stories, saying they cannot identify Davis as the killer.

In court testimony last year, Jeffrey Sapp told a court that he had implicated Davis in the murder because police had told him to do so, and he feared retribution if he were to say otherwise.

Darrel Collins told the court that police threatened with an ‘accessory to murder’ charge if he didn’t testify against Davis.

Benjamin Gordon, a new witness called by Davis’ legal team at the 2010 trial said without any doubt that he saw another man, Sylvester Coles, shoot and kill the police officer.

“A lot of them had criminal records back then, and that’s why they were easily manipulated,” said Davis’ sister Marina Correia at the time.

September 21 will be the fourth time Davis has been scheduled to die.

September 21 will be the fourth time Davis has been scheduled to die. Each previous time, a ‘stay’ was issued, pausing matters that would end his life – sometimes within a few hours of ending it.

This is Davis’ last chance – either he will be put to death or have his sentence changed to life imprisonment by Georgia’s Board of Pardons and Paroles.

Davis’ case has garnered the attention of hundreds of thousands through joint campaigns to save Davis’ life by organisations including Amnesty International and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Advocates for Davis not only argue that there is “too much doubt” to allow his execution, but they also say his case exemplifies a fundamental problem with the United States’ use of capital punishment. 

Because he has been convicted, Davis is no longer considered innocent until proven guilty, but guilty until proven otherwise.

The much higher legal threshold requires Davis to “clearly establish” his innocence.

Lily Hughes, a national board member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty told Al Jazeera, “His legal appeals have been exhausted, so this is really the final chance for Troy.”

Petitioning for life

The controversial nature of the case, and it being Davis’ last chance for life, is why a myriad of organisations coordinated a ‘Global Day of Solidarity for Troy Davis’ last Thursday, with over 300 events around the world and a main action in Atlanta, Georgia. The organisations have also gathered over 650,000 signatures to petition both the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles and the Chatham County District Attorney (DA) for clemency.

Demonstrators in Belgium rally in the Global Day of Solidarity for Troy Davis on 15 September [EPA]

While the parole board is the only decision-making body in this case, Davis’ advocates say the DA has power to either ask the superior court to drop Davis’ death warrant or sway opinions on the Board.

A spokesperson for the DA’s office refused to comment until “the case is officially over in whatever form that is”.

Hughes said she was hopeful for the positive effects of petitioning the parole board: “We have seen executions be stopped before when you have this kind of outpouring of public pressure.”

Hilary Shelton, the NAACP’s national campaign and advocacy coordinator, told Al Jazeera that his organisation has “been making sure that there are avenues for Americans to get their voices to be heard by that probation and parole board to stop this execution and take a closer look at this case.”

He also said the NAACP is going a step further, arguing for a new trial because of the level of doubt in Davis’ case as well as a historical track record of executions disproportionately affecting African-Americans.

“What we’re seeing in the Troy Davis case again is the circumstance and situation in which an African-American was identified as the perpetrator in a murder of a young white police officer,” he said. “[But] looking at the evidence, clearly, there’s a reason to pause.”

Bigger picture

As the Republican race to the White House heats up, conservatives have latched on to Texan Governor Rick Perry’s campaign, putting him in the lead to potentially vie with Obama as head of state in the 2012 election.

Republicans have specifically latched onto Perry’s capital punishment record – higher than any governor in the country.

“[National] support for the death penalty… has been on a steady decline since the height of support in the 1980s,” Hughes told Al Jazeera. “The bucking of that trend is definitely here in Texas.”

As Hughes describes, Texas “out-executes” the rest of the country. “Put all the other states together in a year and Texas still executes more than all the other executing states combined.”

At a recent Republican campaign debate, NBC host Brian Williams began to ask Perry about his execution record and was interrupted with thunderous applause from the California TEA Party audience. In response, Perry said: “I think Americans understand justice.”

Emails to Perry’s campaign went unanswered.

While most would say that deciding on someone’s fate is a heavy weight, Texas-based death penalty advocate Dudley Sharp explained the applause. “Possibly, people were saying: ‘We’re glad that there’s someone that will stand up for justice in these cases when it is so thwarted constantly in California’.”

California has put 13 people to death since 1992. It was reported Thursday that prosecutors will no longer seek execution for a California man convicted of killing an off-duty police officer. Instead, Leslie Gene Parker will likely serve life in prison without the possibility of parole. This is the ‘thwarted justice’ referred to by Sharp.

In Texas, late on Thursday night, a temporary stay of execution was ordered by the US Supreme Court for Duane Buck because of testimony in his original trial that has been described by John Cornyn, a former Texas attorney general and current US senator, as an “improper injection of race in the sentencing hearing”. Buck’s attorneys do not argue that he is not guilty of a double homicide, but that he should not be put to death for it.

Buck is one of four men who were scheduled to die by lethal injection in Texas within an eight-day period. Steven Woods was executed earlier in the week even though a friend of his confessed in his double homicide case. As of this writing Cleve Foster and Lawrence Brewer are scheduled to die within the Texan week.

Calling for help

After facing decisions by numerous state and federal legal bodies that have deemed Troy Davis guilty, his life can only be prolonged by a board decision to commute his sentence. Otherwise, he will be given a series of injections to end his life on Wednesday, September 21.

Death penalty supporters say the US appeals system has worked correctly in Davis’ case: “He’s facing execution without the case being overturned on appeal, because he should,” said Sharp.

Troy Davis’ latest published writing calls for help: “…they took all of my mail, my address book and the only property I have is my eyeglasses. I’m writing with the filter of a pen because I’m not allowed the entire pen…”

For his advocates, whatever occurs in the coming days will serve as an example of the United States justice system, far beyond Davis’ own case.

Laura Moye of Amnesty International told Al Jazeera that Davis’ case “stands out because it speaks volumes about the problems we’ve seen and documented with the United States death penalty system.

“The issues in his case underscore, for us, why it is that the United States ought to turn it’s back on the death penalty.”

Source: Al Jazeera