Death row inmate protests his innocence more loudly each time execution is cancelled


The sister of Troy Davis will tell his story in Dublin tomorrow, writes LARA MARLOWEin Washington

TROY DAVIS fasted and prayed, chose his last visitors, and gave instructions for his own burial. “We had to order a hearse,” recalls Davis’s older sister, Martina Davis Correia. “It was parked in front of the prison door; our sister passed out when she saw it. We were told we’d have to pay $1,000 for the autopsy. The state was about to kill Troy, and they didn’t know the cause of death? They told us we couldn’t witness the execution because they needed the chairs for the family of the victim . . .”

Davis, who is black, will turn 42 this year. He has spent more than half his life in prison for the murder of Mark MacPhail, an off-duty white policeman, a crime he has always denied.

Three times, the state of Georgia has slated Davis for execution. In 2007, he was spared on less than 24 hours’ notice. The second time, in September 2008, when the hearse was waiting, he was less than two hours from a lethal injection.

A month later, the process was stopped three days before execution. As Amnesty International reports, the condemned man and his family “have been subjected to the rollercoaster of hope and despair that is a hallmark of this cruel punishment”.

Gemma Puglisi, who teaches public communication at the American University in Washington, spent a sleepless night after reading an article on the eve of Davis’s first scheduled execution. She mobilised her class to join the worldwide campaign on behalf of Davis, and has visited him several times in prison.

“He’s very inspirational,” she says. “Not bitter, always hopeful, and so grateful for anything anybody does to help him.”

The US is the only country in the Americas that still carries out capital punishment, with 3,279 prisoners awaiting execution, according to the Death Penalty Information Centre.

Davis’s experience is not unusual. Just this week, the execution of Hank Skinner, a death row inmate in Texas, was postponed an hour before he was to have died.

Davis was playing pool with friends in Savannah late at night in August 1989 when he heard shouting from the parking lot outside. A homeless man was being pistol-whipped by another man who was trying to steal his beer. Davis tried to intervene. An onlooker ran to the nearby bus station. Mark MacPhail, the off-duty police officer, was moonlighting as a security guard in the bus station and ran to the dark parking lot, where he was shot dead.

Within 24 hours, Sylvester “Red” Coles, the man who had attacked the homeless man, hired a prominent lawyer, went to the police and claimed he’d seen Davis shoot MacPhail. The murder weapon was never found, nor was there any DNA evidence. Seven of nine witnesses whose testimonies were used to convict Davis later refuted their own statements. Several said they were coerced by police.

“I don’t think the police intended to frame Troy,” says Martina Davis Correia.

“A police officer had been killed, and until Coles came in they had no lead. So they built a case against Troy, using homeless people and drug addicts who hung around the bus station as witnesses. They said, ‘We got the cop-killer off the street.’ The police didn’t even have a mugshot of Troy because he had a clean record. They took a photograph from my mother’s album and put it on wanted posters, and within 24 hours, everyone hated Troy’s guts. They wanted to save face at the expense of my brother’s life.”

The Davis family believe Coles shot MacPhail. Amnesty says it “does not know if Troy Davis – or this other man – is guilty or innocent of the crime”. But Davis’s conviction does not meet UN guidelines that demand “clear and convincing evidence”, Amnesty says.

Richard Stack, author of Dead Wrong; Violence, Vengeance and the Victims of Capital Punishment, who like Gemma Puglisi teaches at the American University, notes one of every eight prisoners sent to death row is exonerated. “How can we possibly take a human life based on such a system? You wouldn’t jump out of an airplane if one in eight parachutes didn’t work. I chose the innocence issue because common ground can be found between liberals and conservatives. No one in their right mind wants to see an innocent person executed.”

Pope Benedict XVI, Desmond Tutu and Jimmy Carter have all spoken out on Troy Davis’s behalf.

Last August, the US Supreme Court ruled that Davis must be given a hearing in federal court to examine new evidence. No date has been set, and Davis continues to languish on death row.

Martina Davis Correia, a trained nurse who served in the 1991 Gulf War, has campaigned tirelessly for her brother, even as she fights breast cancer. She will speak at Amnesty Ireland’s annual conference at 3pm tomorrow in the Trinity school of nursing on Dublin’s D’Olier Street.