23 September 2011, 17:02

Troy Davis case: We executed an innocent man, says lawyer

Troy Davis case: We executed an innocent man, says lawyer
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Interview with Deirdre O'Connor, Executive Director of Innocence Matters, who filed several amicus briefs in the Troy Davis case for the NAACP, the Innocence project and the Charles Hamilton Institute of Justice at Harvard University.

You wrote a brief in the case of Troy Davis. Can you give us a few details as to your involvement in the case?

I learnt about the case when I was a clinical teacher at Emory University Law School and I received an email requesting assistance in writing in a letter to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole. That was in 2007. In the course of that, I requested information about the case and reviewed the entire record that was available – various transcripts and police reports and statements by witnesses – and I became convinced that Troy Davis was probably innocent. I met with him and the family and over the course of the years became quite concerned about the prospect of Troy being executed. I submitted several amicus briefs on behalf of different organizations, including the Innocence project, NAACP, and the Charles Hamilton Institute of Justice along with Innocence Matters at one point.

You met Mr. Davis personally. In your personally opinion, was he innocent?

I really do believe we have just executed an innocent man. Troy has been able to consistently hold the account of what happened. He was present that night. But he was not the person who antagonized the homeless man. He was not the person who was armed. And he was not the person who shot officer McPhail.

There were reports that one of the witnesses was possibly the “triggerman.” Do you have any information on that?

What happened in this particular case is that there is a homeless man named Larry Young, who was hanging out with his girlfriend in a parking lot near Burger King. They were drinking. They ran out of beer, so Larry Young went to a local liquor store to purchase beer. As he came out of the liquor store, he was confronted by Sylvester "Red" Coles, who was the alternative suspect. Red demanded Larry to give him his beer. When Larry Young refused, Red, who had the reputation in the neighbourhood of being a thug, threatened him. He followed him back to the Burger King parking lot. He said: “Listen, man, you don’t know me. I’ll shoot you.” And this is all over a bottle of beer. Troy Davis and another young man, D.D. Collins, were in the parking lot, observing what Red was doing but did not participate in it. They did not have any exchange with Larry Young and there were no words between them. Larry Young’s girlfriend at that time, Harriet Murray, observed all of this happening. Her initial statement to the police was: “I saw one man following Larry Young and threatening him. He said:”You don’t know me. I’ll shoot you.” Then he reached into his waistband. He pulled out a gun and he pistol-whipped Larry Young. And just then, because of the cries of Larry Young asking for help, officer McPhail, who was working off-duty at that Burger King parking lot, came around the corner and was shot. Only the person, who Harriet Murray saw with a gun, was Red Coles, not Troy Davis. Red Coles ran away and hid from the police and the next day he was scared that people were telling the police that he was the one who committed the crime. So he went and got his lawyer. And the lawyer and Red went into the police station and told the police that Troy Davis was there and that Troy Davis was the shooter. And from that moment forward the police were fixated on making a case against Troy Davis. They did not investigate Red Coles. He lied to them and said he didn’t have a gun. He later admitted he had a gun but conveniently lost it. And police never did anything to investigate Red Coles. They just said they built the case against Troy Davis. And the way they did it was they took the picture of Troy Davis, they flashed it all over the news for days. That same picture was put into the group of five other pictures and the witnesses were asked “Do you recognize the shooter?” That was the evidence against Troy Davis.

What are the safeguards to prevent miscarriages of justice in the US?

The US has a system set up so that there are “constitutional errors” that can be raised after trials to say that we should not have confidence in this verdict. So if the prosecutor withheld exculpatory evidence that would have helped show that the person charged was not guilty – that can be a constitutional error. It’s called a Brady violation. But, in this case, there is not constitutional error of actual innocence. Troy Davis case created a situation, which the court had to deal with a little bit differently than they had in the past. So they said: ok, we’ll go ahead and have this hearing but have to set a standard to determine how much proof of innocence there has to be before we can grant a new trial. And they went to a federal district court and they held a hearing and the judge there created a standard that was so high that it would be virtually impossible to meet the standard. He discounted all of the evidence that showed that Troy Davis was likely innocent and said: Listen, he can’t prove his innocence, so we’ll just leave it as it is. Once you are convicted, the presumption of innocence is gone, and now there is the presumption of guilt. They have a tremendous burden to be able to establish their innocence once they’ve been convicted, which makes it so important to get it right the first time.

What role do you think racism played in this case?

I think race played a significant role in this case. This happened in Savannah, Georgia, at a time when there were real issues with racial relationships. The reality is that black people are more likely to be convicted when they are accused of committing a crime against a white person and they are more likely to get the death penalty if they are accused of committing a crime against a white person. And the numbers bear that out. That demonstrates that race does have a role there. The other thing in this particular case, because it was a white police officer, which was being investigated by the same police force, is that there was a real emotional need for them to have somebody to punish for this. So that when Red Coles gave them a suspect in a way to secure conviction they went with that. If this had been a case of a middle-class white defendant then maybe more attention would have been paid to it earlier on. You wouldn’t expect a police department that’s acting with integrity not to investigate Red Coles. It’s just unheard of that they would have overlooked that critical aspect as this of this investigation.

How many of the cases like this are you aware of?

There’s been, I believe, 130 people right now who have been exonerated from death row. Some of those people have come within hours of execution. We can’t let this case end with Troy’s death. That’s a real tragedy for all of us that have the opportunity to study this case and get to know Troy and his family, to go through that last night and witness his death. But we cannot let this issue die with Troy. Red Coles involvement in the death of officer McPhail needs to be determined. It’s important for the American justice system and for the public to be able to have any confidence in the justice system that we examine this closely.

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