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David Protess Headshot

Troy Davis Never Had a Chance

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Last Wednesday, at nightfall, hope filled the air. More than two hours had passed since the executioner was scheduled to inject chemicals into the man strapped to a gurney -- poisons that would paralyze his lungs and stop his heart. But Troy Davis was still alive.

Outside the death chamber, the crowd of protesters had swelled and its mood brightened with the news that the Supreme Court was reviewing the case. Georgia prison officials had placed the execution on hold. Surely, the evidence would save him: seven recantations by the eyewitnesses, admissions of guilt by the alternative suspect, unwavering assertions of innocence by Davis and no incriminating physical evidence or a murder weapon.

Yet, in what seemed like the blink of an eye, Davis was gone. "How could this happen in America?" was the question repeated on talk radio and around the water coolers. Now it's time for a postmortem, and the troubling answer is: it happens all the time. In fact, Troy Davis never had a chance.

Despite the evidence of his innocence, despite the support by a former president, an FBI director and the Pope, despite the seemingly endless appeals, Troy Davis was doomed to die. His fate was sealed the moment Mark MacPhail was gunned down on that hot Savannah night in 1989.

From the day he was arrested, Troy Davis had three strikes against him.

Strike one: Davis was black, MacPhail was white. In the past three decades, 255 blacks have been executed for killing whites, while only 17 whites have been put to death for killing blacks, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. During the same period, almost 80 percent of executions involved inmates convicted of murdering whites, even though half the murder victims in society were black. Troy Davis never had a chance.

Strike two: MacPhail was a police officer. Law enforcement, charged with protecting all citizens equally, protects some more equally than others. The murder of a police officer compels prosecutors to pull out all the stops to get a conviction and death sentence. State law makes the murder of an officer a capital offense. If MacPhail had been the mayor of Savannah, his murderer would not have been eligible for the death penalty. Troy Davis never had a chance.

Strike three: The crime happened in the South. Three Southern states (Texas, Virginia and Florida) account for the majority of all executions since 1976, according to a recent report by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Georgia ranks seventh in the country in total executions, and its death row is one of the nation's largest. Troy Davis never had a chance.

What if Davis had been convicted of killing the black homeless man in the parking lot that night instead of Officer MacPhail? What if the crime had happened in Chicago instead of Savannah? Davis would have received a long prison term. But if he somehow had been sentenced to death, he would have been pardoned when Illinois Gov. George Ryan cleared death row in 2003, and perhaps freed because of the witness recantations.

Turn back the clock to when Jim Edgar was governor of Illinois, however, and the outcome might have been as deadly as in Georgia. The law-and-order governor refused to stop the 1995 execution of another black man named Davis -- Girvies Davis -- despite compelling evidence of his innocence uncovered by my journalism students and Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn. Davis' crime: an interracial murder.

Like the case of Girvies Davis, the actual evidence in Troy Davis' case took a back seat to the vagaries of race, geography and politics.

We naively believed Troy Davis had a chance last Wednesday night. And maybe that's why his execution still hurts so much.