Revolution #246, September 25, 2011

On the Execution of Troy Davis

A Calculated Murder by a Cold-Blooded System

At 10:50 p.m. on September 21, the State of Georgia injected a deadly mix of poisonous chemicals into Troy Davis, a 42-year-old Black man who had been on death row for the last 22 years. Davis turned his head to look directly at the family of the police officer he was convicted of shooting and according to witnesses said: "I am innocent. All I can ask... is that you look deeper into this case so that you really can finally see the truth. I ask my family and friends to continue to fight this fight." At 11:08 p.m. Troy Davis was dead.

This legal lynching took place in the face of overwhelming evidence that Davis was innocent. It took place after one million people signed a petition to stop the execution, after worldwide protests involving many thousands of people. While some prominent public figures, including ex-President Carter, former FBI director William Sessions, and Pope Benedict, spoke out against the execution, President Obama didn't do or say anything—except to have his press secretary issue a statement that said: "It is not appropriate for the president of the United States to weigh in on specific cases like this one, which is a state prosecution." But in 2008 Barack Obama had no problem speaking up on a state prosecution case when he told people in NYC to accept the outrageous acquittal of the cops who murdered Sean Bell.

The case of Troy Davis went through many levels of state and federal appeals courts that cynically refused to examine powerful evidence of innocence. The U.S. Supreme Court, after the execution was delayed for over three hours, could have halted the execution to allow time to review the evidence of innocence. But instead, it gave the final green light for Troy Davis to be strapped to a gurney and put to death.

This is a barbaric, racist system—ruled over by monsters who have NO RIGHT to have power over anybody—no right to take away anybody's life.

This was a barbaric and calculated murder by a system that cares nothing about justice. Indeed the arrest, imprisonment, trial and conviction—and then execution of Troy Davis—had nothing to do with justice. NO: This execution was a demonstration of the bloodlust of those who rule over us—which they see as crucial to maintain power. This execution had everything to do with reaffirming the power of life-and-death the system holds over the oppressed, a power wielded every day on the streets with police "stop-and-frisk," brutality, murder; with 2.3 million people in dungeon-like prisons, many on death row.

The Machinery of Death, the Evidence of Innocence

Troy Davis was charged with murdering Mark MacPhail, an off-duty police officer doing security at a Burger King in the Savannah, Georgia area. Davis was one of many people in the parking lot when a fight broke out. One man pulled a gun and pistol whipped the other, at which point Davis said he fled the area. MacPhail came on the scene and was shot twice by a man with a gun.

Though there was no physical evidence against him, the police quickly went after Davis as their target. Many witnesses said the shooter was Sylvester "Red" Cole but the police never pursued him as a suspect and to this day it is unclear whether Cole is innocent or guilty. The police never interviewed Davis' pastor, who spent four hours talking to him before he surrendered. As Davis' trial lawyer said,"the entire focus of this investigation was not in deciding and finding the truth of this case as to who actually committed these crimes ... but it was to find evidence to convict [Davis] of these crimes." (Amnesty International report, "'Where is the justice for me': The Case of Troy Davis, Facing Execution in Georgia" at

All this is reminiscent of lynch mobs in the South, which after a real or imagined crime against a white person would go looking for a Black person, any Black person who happened to come in their path, to be savagely strung up from a tree.

The police put together a series of witnesses who testified either that Davis shot someone earlier in the evening; or shot MacPhail in the parking lot; or confessed to them afterwards. Nine people testified for the prosecution at the trial as eye witnesses, fingering Davis in some way. Cole was a key witness against Davis.

Davis' attorneys lacked the resources to really counter these testimonies and do everything needed to put together a good legal defense. The railroad of Troy Davis was in effect from the start. For example prosecutors concealed a letter from one of these witnesses soliciting favors in her own court case in return for testifying against Troy.

On August 28, 1991, a jury took just two hours to convict Davis and seven hours to agree to sentence him to death. From death row, Davis began a series of legal appeals that would last 22 years.

Over the next 11 years the original case against Troy Davis completely fell apart. His conviction was based entirely on eyewitness testimony, but by 2002, seven out of nine of the original witnesses had recanted their testimony, with six of the seven swearing that police had coerced them to lie about the events that night. (See "How Testimony Against Troy Davis Was Coerced")

Nine witnesses signed affidavits implicating "Red" Cole as the person who shot and killed MacPhail. The only two witnesses that have stuck to their original stories are Cole himself, and a woman who had only testified about the color of Troy's shirt. Three of the original jurors swore that they would never have voted to convict Troy Davis had they had full access to this evidence.

Think about this: Troy Davis was put to death on the basis of TWO testimonies, period, end of case. One from a person who others say was the shooter. The other, who ONLY testified about the color of the shooter's shirt. This is American-style justice.

A Railroading Appeals System

The U.S. government brags about its system of "checks and balances." There is supposed to be a distribution of power among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government—to prevent control by any single branch. The judicial branch is given the power to interpret laws, including the U.S. Constitution. And in the case of Troy Davis it was very clear that an enormous travesty of justice was about to take place. But not a muscle was moved on the part of the executive (Obama administration) or legislative (Congress) branches to do anything to stop the completely unjust and barbaric execution of Troy Davis. And the U.S. Supreme Court gave the final go ahead for the execution.

Two closely related legal principles are supposed to underlie the U.S. criminal justice system. One is "innocent until proven guilty." The other is that the standard of guilt must be "beyond a reasonable doubt." And these two principles are supposed to be even more strictly adhered to in capital cases, since death is an irreversible sentence. An extensive system of appeals courts, clemency hearings and even executive pardons is supposed to insure a fair application of justice.

But what happened to Troy Davis reveals that just the opposite is the case. The whole apparatus of the U.S. system of [in]justice swung into motion to suppress examination of new evidence, to uphold the original outrageous sentence, and to railroad Troy Davis to the death chamber.

Here is how a 2007 article in Time Magazine described what happened:

"The system of appeals can still stretch out over decades, but in Davis' case, many of those appeals are now being denied for procedural reasons. In his 2004 petition to the federal district court in Savannah, Davis presented recanted testimony, most of which involves witnesses who say police coercion caused them to wrongly implicate Davis. He also presented nine individuals' affidavits that suggested that the real murderer was actually the former acquaintance who first accused Davis of the crime [Coles].

"The federal judge rejected the petition since, under the current law, the evidence must first be presented in state court. But Tom Dunn, the executive director of the Georgia Resource Center, which helped represent Davis, says that funding trouble prevented the center from presenting the evidence in state court in the first place. Tracking down witnesses costs money, but in 1995, just as Dunn's colleagues had been preparing Davis' appeal, Congress eliminated $20 million in funding to post-conviction defender organizations like the Georgia center, which lost 70% of its budget. Six of the center's eight lawyers left, as well as three of its four investigators, and Davis' case became one of about 80 that Beth Wells, then executive director, had to handle with her co-director.

"'The work conducted on Mr. Davis' case was akin to triage,' Wells wrote in an affidavit, ‘where we were simply trying to avert total disaster rather than provide any kind of active or effective representation... There were numerous witnesses that we knew should have been interviewed, but lacked the resources to do so.'" (Time—July 13, 2007, Will Georgia Kill an Innocent Man?) [Emphasis ours.]

In the twisted, totally unjust logic of the U.S. "justice" system, being poor, working class, a minority, without resources to get adequate legal representation can actually become part of a legal argument for why your trial should NOT be reviewed by the courts of appeal—even when there is evidence of innocence. So one of the reasons Troy Davis was denied the chance to have overwhelming evidence of his innocence reviewed before he was put to death…was because he did not have the money and other resources that were necessary to put together a real defense at his original trial.

Further on March 17, 2008, "the Georgia Supreme Court denied Davis' appeal, stating that the recanting witnesses 'have merely stated they now do not feel able to identify the shooter,' that the trial testimony could not be ignored, and that they [that is, the Court] 'in fact, favor[ed] that original testimony over the new.'" (Amnesty report) [Emphasis ours]. Apart from simply lying about the content of the recantation affidavits (leaving out the accounts of police coercion, the identification of another shooter, etc.), the Court's argument is basically this: That witnesses who are threatened by the police and sign statements they haven't even read are more "reliable," whereas the court completely disregards the fact that these same people, risking perjury indictments, have now testified that what they said before was actually a lie—and that they DID NOT see Troy Davis shoot McPhail.

As Bob Avakian has pointed out in discussing the concept of "equality before the law":

"This is supposed to mean that the same laws are applied, in the same ways, to everyone, regardless of what their 'station' in life is, how much money they have, and so on. Experience shows, however, that this is not how things work out in reality. People with more money have more political influence—and those with a great deal of money have a great deal of political influence and power—while those with less money, and especially those with very little, also have no significant political influence, connections with political power, and so on. And this plays out, repeatedly, in legal proceedings, right down to the way in which those presiding over legal procedures (judges) look—very differently—at different kinds of people who become involved in legal proceedings. But what is even more decisive is the reality that the laws themselves (and the Constitution which sets the basis for the laws) reflect and reinforce the essential relations in society, and most fundamentally the economic (production) relations of capitalism." (From Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity, Part 1: Beyond the Narrow Horizon of Bourgeois Right)

These are the rules and workings of the U.S. judicial system that led to the legal lynching of Troy Davis.

Lessons—and Inspiration—of the Troy Davis Case

Troy Davis fought to prove his innocence to his last breath and his courage and determination brought forward in the fight to prevent a enormous and horrendous injustice. First dozens, then thousands and ultimately millions came to know about his case and growing numbers spoke out against the execution. Not only did thousands take to the streets around the world to prevent the execution, but in the spirit of Troy Davis' final call to "continue this fight," many hundreds of youth and others took to the streets again in the days following his murder.

When this system killed Troy Davis, this raised deep questions about the legitimacy of the U.S. justice system, and of the system as a whole. And the movement to save Troy Davis has itself been inspiring to even more people, moving many to see the need to refuse to accept this great crime by the system, as well as the daily outrages this system throws down non-stop.

The growing protests, in the U.S. and around the world, from all kinds of people, did not stop the execution of Troy Davis. This system cares nothing for what the masses of people think—except in so far as it threatens their legitimacy and rule.

But the lesson here is not to give up. The struggle to free Troy Davis actually dealt a blow to their set-up, tore large holes in their mask of "legitimacy," and awakened many more people to political life and struggle.

Our hearts ache in the wake of the state murder of Troy Davis—and this system must be made to pay a high political price for this horrendous crime against Troy Davis, his friends and family…and the masses of people as a whole.

The struggle must continue to vindicate Troy Davis, and should increasingly be part of the larger struggle against the death penalty, against mass incarceration, against police terror, all of which should be taken to the streets in a major way in the days leading up to and on October 22, the National Day of Protest Against Police Brutality, Repression, and the Criminalization of a Generation.

And all this must be a part of the movement we are building for revolution—to get rid of this whole illegitimate system and bring into being a whole new power. Things don't have to be this way—we don't have to have the system that killed Troy Davis. The Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal) put out by the RCP includes a detailed plan for a new socialist society, including a socialist judicial system—a future truly worth fighting for. Through revolution, the people can bring into being a whole new state power—where the laws and judicial system are actually about getting to the truth of things and delivering justice. Where the different branches of the government serve the goal of emancipating all of humanity, getting to a world free of oppression and exploitation.

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