Strange Fruit Still Falling in the Southern States

09/27/2011 12:16 pm ET | Updated Nov 27, 2011

In 1991 African-American Troy Davis was convicted of the murder of a white policeman. His conviction was so dubious that in recent years it attracted the attention of Amnesty International, the NAACP, the Innocence Project, former President Jimmy Carter and Pope Benedict XVI. But despite global criticism and an abundance of evidence undermining his conviction, the U.S. Supreme Court decided on Wednesday Sept. 21 to kill Troy Davis in the name of American justice.

On Aug. 19, 1989, off-duty police officer Mark MacPhail witnessed an assault on a homeless man in a Savannah car parking lot. As he attempted to intervene, MacPhail was shot twice by the homeless man's attacker. Three days later, Troy Davis was arrested. Two years later he was convicted in the absence of any physical evidence. Shortly afterwards, he was sentenced to death.

In 2003 the Atlanta Journal-Constitution began investigating Davis's conviction, publishing several stories in which key witnesses from the 1991 trial recanted their testimony. As the prosecution's case unraveled, it seemed unfathomable that Davis had ever been convicted in the first place.

Nobody at the scene had initially identified Troy Davis as the shooter. The first time Davis's name came to the attention of the police was when they were approached by a man called Sylvester Coles, who named Davis as the culprit. Since then, nine people have signed affidavits claiming that Coles was the real gunman, some saying he confessed the crime to them personally.

With no DNA or murder weapon, police were forced to rely on eyewitness testimony, which was tainted from the outset. Some witnesses were shown Davis's picture before the line-up began. Then, during the line-up, Davis's picture was set against a different background to the others. Officers couldn't have made any clearer which face the witnesses were supposed to pick.

Most of that eyewitness testimony has since been recanted anyway. Besides Sylvester Coles, eight witnesses testified at trial that Davis was the shooter. Seven have since recanted all or part of their testimony, six claiming that police officers bullied them into falsely identifying Davis as the killer. Right-wing media outlets have repeatedly claimed that these recantations are fictitious. In fact, excerpts from many of them are available on Amnesty's website.

Davis's detractors have also made much of the claim that bullet casings from the murder matched those from an earlier shooting in which Davis was involved. However, there is no more evidence connecting Davis to the earlier shooting than there is connecting him to the MacPhail shooting and as for the so-called ballistic "match," a new study in 2007, after more than 15 years of scientific advancements, did not conclude that they were fired from the same gun and the Georgia Bureau of Investigations has concluded that the original test was unreliable.

At least three of the jurors in Davis's trial have now expressed doubts about the verdict they reached 20 years ago. One of them, Brenda Forrest, said in 2009, "If I knew then what I know now, Troy Davis would not be on death row. The verdict would be not guilty."

The overwhelming response to last week's events has been one of horror, although certain right-wing media outlets spent far more time echoing the MacPhails' cries for Davis's blood than they did discussing the actual evidence. Anne Coulter went so far as to bizarrely claim that there is "more credible evidence that space aliens have walked among us than that an innocent person has been executed in this country in the past 60 years."

In reality, there is credible evidence that dozens of innocent people have been executed in the U.S. in the last 60 years. A study by the Northwestern University School of Law's Center on Wrongful Convictions found that at least 39 prisoners have been executed despite significant doubts about their guilt. Many in-depth case studies on these wrongful executions can be found on their website.

Studies cited by the Innocence Project suggest that between 2.3 percent and 5 percent of all prisoners in the US are innocent. Even the bottom end of that estimate -- 2.3 percent -- would constitute approximately 45,000 prisoners.

According to the Innocence Project, since 1989 there have been tens of thousands of cases in which the wrong suspects have been pursued by police and only ruled out by DNA. Ergo, in cases tried before 1989 or in cases in which there was no DNA to test -- such as Troy Davis's -- untold numbers of innocent people could have been sent to jail. In fact, DNA testing is only possible in 5-10 percent of criminal cases, meaning that in roughly 90 percent of cases there is a chance that police will pursue the wrong person with no scientific means of ruling them out.

On the evening of Sept. 21, when asked whether he had any final words, Troy Davis lifted his head and addressed the MacPhail family. "I did not kill personally your son, father, brother," he told them. "I am innocent." He urged them to "dig deeper" and "find the real truth." Then, to the prison workers about to kill him, he said, "May God bless your souls."

Addressing the press after Troy Davis's execution, lawyer Thomas Ruffin said, "What I saw tonight... was indeed a legal lynching."

The phrase "legal lynching" is an apt one, given the disturbing statistics regarding race and the dealth penalty. If Troy Davis had been white, or if Mark MacPhail had been black, the execution would probably have never happened.

More than 80 percent of executions in the U.S. occur in the South, where racism thrives. In Georgia -- one of the only states in America to have rejected the Racial Justice Act -- black males constitute only 15 percent of the population, but almost 50 percent of its death row.

In 2007 the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a four-part article about the application of the death penalty in Georgia, based on a study of 1,315 cases between 1995 and 2004. It concluded that a person accused of killing a white victim in Georgia was twice as likely to receive the death penalty as a person accused of killing a black victim. In armed robbery murders, prosecutors sought the death penalty in 14 percent of cases where the victim was white, but only 1 percent of cases where the victim was black.

The message is clear: the state of Georgia places a higher value on white life than it does on black life, and on Wednesday Sept. 21, the appeasement of Mark MacPhail's relatives was more important to the state of Georgia -- and indeed the U.S. Supreme Court -- than the life of Troy Davis.

One hundred and two prisoners currently sit on Georgia's death row, waiting to be told when they will be killed. Approximately 3,000 more sit on death row in other states. Statistically speaking, between 2 percent and 5 percent of them are innocent. How many more Troy Davis's will there be before America finally stops sowing the seeds of this cruel and bitter crop?

Special thanks to Deborah Ffrench.

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