Troy Davis: The Case Continues

by Dr. Alan Bean —

The Troy Davis case indicates just how subjective the legal system really is. The federal 11th Court of Appeals deals with cases in Florida, Alabama and Georgia. A panel of three judges, selected from this court, considered the Davis case yesterday.

Rosemary Burkett, a Clinton appointee with both Arab and Hispanic ethnic roots, would like to see a full airing of the facts surrounding the Davis case. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Burkett finds it troubling that seven of the nine original witnesses have changed their stories and that one of the two witnesses sticking to his story has allegedly admitted to killing Savannah officer Mark Allen MacPhail.

Davis became the prime suspect in the case when Sylvester Coles told the Savannah police department that Troy was the killer. According to media accounts, Judge Burkett is wondering why Coles was never considered as a suspect. “It’s bad enough that we may be on the verge of killing an innocent man”, she told the court during the hearing, but “it’s also possible the real guilty person who shot Officer MacPhail is not being prosecuted.”

“Why”, Barkett asked, “were none of the witnesses in the case shown a photo array including a picture of Coles?” “It seems police were so anxious to get somebody that they didn’t pursue Coles.” Barkett observed.

Judge Stanley Marcus, also a Clinton appointee, was less outspoken than Judge Barkett, but the testimony he was hearing bothered him as well. Since the 1991 trial, three witnesses had signed statements saying that Sylvester Coles admitted to the crime over a beer or between tokes.

True, a single witness, Stephen Sanders, is sticking by his story. At the 1991 trial, Sanders said, “You don’t forget someone who stands over and shoots someone.”

However, as defense attorney Tom Dunn reminded the court, Sanders originally told police he wouldn’t be able to identify the shooter. Memory usually gets fuzzier over time.

According to the Atlanta Progressive News, the hearing revolved around two questions: ”First, given the evidence available,is it likely a jury would not convict Davis? Second, did Davis exercise due diligence in providing new evidence?”

Susan Boleyn, Senior Assistant Attorney General in the State of Georgia, argued the status quo position. Troy Davis has presented no hard evidence of actual innocence, she told the judges. Davis’s claims have been denied relief by the state courts, the 11th Circuit, the U.S. Supreme Court and the state Board of Pardons and Paroles, she reminded the court. At some point you no longer get another bite of the same apple.

But when do you toss the apple core into the trash, and who decides?

Asked why three witnesses are primed and willing to testify that Coles privately confessed to murdering officer MacPhail, Boleyn rattled off a few theories. Coles might have been drunk or high on marijuana; or perhaps Coles was trying to impress his listeners with a bold lie, Boleyn theorized.

Boleyn reminded the judges that the reliability of recanting witnesses has traditionally been held in low repute. The fact that a witness admits that they once lied under oath (for whatever the reason) should be enough to undermine their credibility.

Taken together, Boleyn’s arguments boil down to this: ya’ll can’t prove your man is clean, so we get to kill him.

Boleyn was also critical of defense counsel for not bringing their concerns forward in a more timely manner. This raises an interesting question: what happens when defense attorneys don’t file their briefs on time? Should the defendant suffer for the mistakes of the people charged with his defense?

Well, yes, if precedent is anything to go by, he should.

The smooth running of the judicial machinery trumps all other concerns. The law requires finality. You can’t have witnesses changing their minds willy nilly, especially in a capital case. Therefore, it is generally agreed that witness testimony should be taken at face value and that once a witness speaks the words are set in stone. Recantations undermine the finality prized by the legal system.

Unless a case achieves the kind of attention the Troy Davis case is currently receiving. When both sides are free to make their arguments and the media is paying attention (sort of), the immovable object (”we can’t execute a man who might be innocent”) runs up against the irresistible force of legal precedent (”a jury found him guilty and a string of courts have backed up their verdict, so he’s a dead man”).

Generally, a tie goes to the state. Not this time.

Does Susan Boleyn and her buddies at the Georgia Attorney General’s Office know for sure that Sylvester Coles is innocent, Troy Davis is guilty, and the seven recanting witnesses are all lying through their teeth? Of course not. How could they possibly know these things? They don’t care because they don’t have to. Accused murderers are run through a complex game of musical chairs and when the music stops and they haven’t found a seat, they die. We don’t have to know for sure that you’re guilty, nor do we have to care. Justice is defined as whatever the legal system decides to do. If a case proceeds through the proper channels justice has been served.

If Susan Boleyn worried too much about these things she wouldn’t be able to sleep at night. Cut the poor woman some slack; she’s just doing her job. The Senior Assistant’s role in the Troy Davis melodrama is to argue for the state of Georgia no matter how nonsensical her arguments may sound to the uninitiated. Hers is not to reason why, nor can she allow her private judgment to intrude into the matter. The decision was made by her bureaucratic superiors and she is paid to spout their arguments in public even when it makes her look like an escapee from a Monty Python sketch.

Generally it doesn’t matter because no one from the outside world is paying attention.

If folks had given up on Troy Davis he would be long dead. But because a shining slivver of humanity is paying attention and a handful of reporters are still pressing pen to paper Troy Davis clings to life.

It’s got nothing to do with fairness or even common sense; it’s all about finality and bureaucratic efficiency.

Dr. Alan Bean

Alan Bean is the executive director of Friends of Justice, a criminal justice reform organization formed in response to the infamous Tulia, Texas, drug sting of 1999, in which over half of Tulia’s Black males were arrested and convicted on the uncorroborated word of a corrupt and racist undercover narcotics officer. Bean, a local Baptist minister, played a key role in organizing to expose the Tulia travesty and working to free the defendants. Bean became a key organizer to free the Jena 6, Black high school students facing criminal prosecution for defying racist injustice in Louisiana.


  1. says

    jose,i think you are trying to be done a good job.if evidence wasn’t presented it’s because there was something fishy about it.if a persons shoots a black person with a gun and is convicted,but uses the same gun in another crime,then this person gets a free pass the kill another black if not incarcerated for a long this case if the ballistics test are correct then the justice system should be on trial.

  2. says

    Who the heck did the sketch? It’s awful! Worse, in case no one noticed, it brings back a whole ton of old “negro people” stereotypes. Are you kidding?! Wow!

    If you think for one second that this case was heard in a neutral, modern county, take a look at that picture again. Understand that this picture was likely drawn by an artist from Chatham County. ‘Nuff said on that.

    Jose, the point isn’t whether or not he might have been present when the officer was shot (which is the only thing the shorts would prove – did he try to provide assistance? Wouldn’t he get bloodied in that case? Of course he would!). The point is there is serious question about most of the testimony, accusations of coercion on the part of the police (which courts HATE to prosecute – when the police acts as one arm of justice, it’s kinda hard to chop off your hand for dropping the cookie jar!), there is doubt about the gun used in the case, and anyway it was NEVER RECOVERED. Although it’s unlikely, it is not impossible that this gun was tossed after the first crime (or given to someone else) who later used it to kill Officer MacPhail (RIP).

    The point is DOUBT, and there is serious doubt. You don’t have to be a liberal or essentially “crazy” (which is, in fact, what you’re saying about those of us who doubt) to see something isn’t right. I have said it elsewhere and will say it again: I’m convinced if the District Attorney tried to bring this to trial now, not only wouldn’t he have a case, but he wouldn’t be able to get a trial, certainly not a death penalty one.

    • Temeker says

      I agree with you on that one. Why has no one ever questioned Coles? He all but admitted to having a weapon of the same caliber that killed the man. He was present and he turned himself in for questioning probably because he knew Davis was not in town. He wanted to beat him to the draw. Bragging about what he did while under the influence; not an excuse. He did it and let an innocent man die in his place. But it’s in God’s hands now. He will be taken care of.

  3. Jose says

    Where was all this outrage from progressives and the minority community when OJ got off for killing two white people? If I’m not mistaken, they all cheered despite overwhelming evidence of his guilt and his actions right after the murders – which were the definition of “consciousness of gulit”…

    What no one here mentions is that police found bloodied shorts, belonging to Davis, in the dryer of his mother’s house after he fled to Atlanta, right after the murder (just another coincidence – he was planning that late night trip for a month..right? LOL) – DNA revealed it was the murdered officer’s blood – but it wasn’t presented in the original trial because Davis’ defense team managed to convince the judge that his mother was coerced and never gave permission for the police to search her house – whether that was true or not – getting a crucial piece of evidence excluded doesn’t mean it never existed – it exists, it was presented by the prosecutors in Mr. Davis’ appeal and it sinks all the other crap about “witnesses recanting” and all the other tricks the anti-death penalty crowd are trying to bring up 20 years after the fact – to create manufactured doubt in a case, where the convicted is as guilty as guilty gets…

    Don’t let these “smoke and mirror” games mislead you – the truth is – he’s guilty and if the people of his state believe in the death penalty – so be it – no one has the right to force their moralistic superiority upon everyone else, especially when it wasn’t their son/father/brother/friend who was viciously gunned down by a remorseless, low-life thug.

    • Asmani says

      You are no doubt white, its quite apparent in your tone. Dont speak on what you cant relate to. These judges are breed from the dirty south mentality…If your brown, your going down. Their kkkdogs with a mission to slaughter whomevers not white. And the blackman has always been the number one target. Its never a matter of the courts proving him guilty. It is the blackman who has to prove his innocents.

    • Temeker says

      You are most likely racist and speak on the facts. Down south it’s black against white. He was guilty because he was black not because he was a murderer. And Oj??? Come on now kill yourself for that one because totally different cenerio. You WHITE pple kill me with this I’m white so I’m right thing. Yall don’t know shit and need to open up a book and read and get some education about yourselves. This ain’t slavery days black pple can read and write now. Hell maybe smarter than you all. So please spare me with the Oj got away so kill anybody black you can. Black pple stand up for each other and help fight for our rights as well. We pay taxes and live here too. So we deserve to be treated as such like you Jose!!!

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  5. Dr. Jim Hamilton says

    The very individuals that speak of justice, write the laws and violate them. As long as the people do nothing to help the injustices done in this country there will always be Troy Davies. We sit on the outside and prejudge men and women that have been charged with a crime, have you ever wandered why they react the way they do after a conviction !! These individuals are going up against trained professionals that do the same job everyday and most time with the same results ( guilty ). I can not go into another persons business and tell them how to run it, if i have never been involved or worked in their field. But we allow innocent people to go though this everyday many not having money to afford a professional to work for them. And if they do ! This professional is governed by the same professionals that they are trying to protect you from. WELL !!! They can withhold evidence, straight out lie, and you get to answer yes or no.. I believe if an innocent man or woman is found guilty of a crime they did not commit and is placed in jail but later found to be innocent. Every person involved in that case should be brought up on charges. If you have never been to jail, then you don’t know what it’s like to be behind bars. That person is no longer the same person he / she was before being jailed. Now what does this have to do with the posting ? I am trying to make people aware of what we are doing to other humans in the name of justice.. Please think before you accuse someone of doing something wrong,you can sentence an innocent person to death without killing the body. Many of us say well i don’t violate the law ! Which one’s ? There are many that were on the books long before yours and my times that can be used against you in a court of law.


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