Features » July 24, 2009
My Brother on Death Row
Troy Davis’ sister speaks out, as Davis awaits a Supreme Court decision.
For now, at least, Georgia death row prisoner Troy Davis is safe from execution. When the Supreme Court reconvenes in September, it will decide whether to hear his request for habeas corpus. Davis, an African-American, was convicted of the 1989 shooting and killing of white off-duty police officer Mark Allen MacPhail in a Burger King parking lot in Savannah, Ga. The conviction was based solely on the testimony of nine eyewitnesses–seven of whom have now recanted or contradicted their original statements. Some have even signed affidavits saying that police coerced them into pointing the finger at Davis. The primary witness, Sylvester Coles, is now suspected of committing the murder himself.
Martina Correia, Davis’ sister, has led an international campaign to save her brother’s life and prove his innocence. South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former President Jimmy Carter have publicly expressed their support for Davis.
Even as Correia faces her own personal battle with breast cancer, she continues to fight to win justice for Davis.
You are calling on Chatham County District Attorney Larry Chisolm to reopen Troy’s case. What are the grounds for a new trial?
Some of the original trial witnesses have recanted, and nine new witnesses have said they either witnessed the murder or heard one of the original eyewitnesses confess to the murder. The prosecution’s whole case against Troy has fallen apart. They have one primary eyewitness left, Steve Sanders, who on the night of the crime couldn’t identify the shooter and two weeks later, two months later, couldn’t identify the shooter. But he came to court and identified Troy. There’s no blood, no physical evidence, no DNA. We can’t kill this man because everything we used to convict him doesn’t exist.
Why has Troy’s case garnered such widespread attention and support?
You have people on both sides of the death penalty debate on the same side for a change, saying that we cannot execute the innocent. These people are willing to put their name on a document and say we need to stop, rewind and give this man a new trial, because this is not a case about black and white. This is a case about the truth. It does not make any sense to deny Troy a hearing based on the evidence, when this state has got millions of dollars to try to kill Troy with no actual evidence.
Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) says that the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, a piece of legislation he helped to write when he was in the House of Representatives, has been misinterpreted by the courts. What role did this act have on Troy’s case?
It says you have one year from conviction to bring forth information about your actual innocence. The law was enacted in 1996, but President Bill Clinton made it retroactive 10 years, which is against international human rights law.
Troy didn’t have a lawyer from 1991 to 1996. When he was able to obtain a lawyer through the Georgia Resource Center, they didn’t have the funds to properly defend him. When they were getting their witnesses’ statements in the late 1990s and early 2000s, they realized, “We actually have an innocent person here.” They went to the courts and after every affidavit they got, the courts said, “Oh, we don’t have to listen to that, because you should have brought it up in 1992.” Well, we couldn’t bring it up, and why should that law apply if it wasn’t in effect until 1996?
What were the factors that led to Troy’s conviction? Was there prosecutorial or police misconduct?
Both were involved, and there was a media frenzy to hang Troy. We have one newspaper in the city and three television stations, and all the stations promoted were the prosecution’s statements from court.
The police terrify that black community–ride around with shotguns and everything else. So nobody knew what was going on. The prosecutor didn’t have anything. The police didn’t have anything until [Sylvester] Coles went in. Coles was the only one who testified he had heard the shot. Troy never had a weapon. Coles threw his weapon away and they never made him produce it. The ballistics report from 1989 said that it was negative for Troy’s fingerprints, negative for everything. Yet the prosecutors said in open court that they had a ballistics report that linked Troy to the crime.
Do you think Obama will pardon Troy?
No. Because he only pardons at the federal level, so there is no jurisdiction there. But that doesn’t mean that Obama doesn’t have influence. I wish he would intervene. We have been sending letters and sending letters, but Obama hasn’t said anything about Troy’s case. And I can’t believe he doesn’t know about it.
You’ve worked with Amnesty International and other anti-death penalty organizations. How have you been able to build such widespread support for Troy?
I was persistent. People thought I was lying or biased because I was Troy’s sister. But I kept showing people court transcripts and documents, and I was able convince the Amnesty International Secretary General to do a special report on the case. I had Troy’s lawyer send over his court transcripts to a special investigator in the U.K., and this legal expert took about three months to go over Troy’s case line by line, item by item. They wrote a 35-page report, and when the report hit the Internet in February of 2007, everything hit the fan. People could not believe that they were trying to kill Troy with this kind of evidence. If we had the power of Internet 10 years ago, my brother would probably be free right now.
What other factors have been critical in building a loud and vocal movement to save Troy’s life?
Grassroots efforts. Getting the message to the people–not to all the big organizations, but talking to the people who care about human rights, human kindness and dignity, and educating them about the whole system. Then people were willing to spread the knowledge and tell Troy’s story. I challenged them: “Go find the information for yourself.” And that’s what people did.
You have faced a personal battle with breast cancer. It’s not unusual for you to be in chemo one day and flying across the country to speak at a conference the next day. How do you keep going?
I have a strong faith in God and in family. If I have to sacrifice myself or my health to make sure that my brother is free, then I’m willing to do that.
And I live in a place where we don’t just have racism, we have classism and all other kinds of -isms. People tell me all the time, “Oh, Savannah is such a beautiful place.” But you don’t have to live here in my skin. As long as you don’t cross certain lines, everything is fine. People think Savannah has evolved. But those same trees with the moss on them that are so beautiful to look at–if those trees could talk they would tell you a whole different story.
It doesn’t make any sense for me to see little black and Hispanic boys, lined up on a street corner with people searching their pockets just because they’re standing there. When police cars pull up in the park, little boys are so afraid that they just take off running. Then when they shoot one of those boys in the back, it’s always justified.
I’m standing up for a whole lot of Troy Davises. Not just people on Death Row, but people who cannot fight the system, because those are the people that they target. They target people who don’t have power to fight back.
What kind of transformation have you seen in Troy over the last 18 years, and how has he been able to maintain his spirit and his strength?
Troy has always been a good person, a good spirit, a good aura. When you walk into a room with Troy and he smiles, it just lights up your spirit. He has no hatred toward anybody because he believes that in order for God to help him, he can’t harbor ill will toward the people who wrong him.
Troy has a strong sense of family. He has a lot of friends, people from all faiths and religions visiting him, prisoners and guards giving him encouragement. Yet he still knows there’s an underlying thing–that the state of Georgia wants to kill him. But you know what, we can’t live in fear. And so we have to keep fighting, keep pushing and keep doing whatever we can. Troy–through through his letters and cards and pictures that people send him from all around the world–is able to travel in his imagination. That’s a powerful thing, for people who have never met you and who you may never see to stand up for you.
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Alice Kim serves on the board of directors for the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and is co-editor of its national newsletter, The New Abolitionist. She is also the director of The Public Square at the Illinois Humanities Council.