Is the legal system of the state of Georgia up to the task - when the task is to rectify the flawed trial of a black man accused of killing a white police officer?
The world is waiting to see if justice can prevail.
Fortunately, on Friday, October 24, the U.S. Court of Appeals for Georgia's 11th Circuit issued a stay of execution that narrowly prevented accused cop killer Troy Davis from being put to death by lethal injection the following Monday.
This is the third stay of execution in a case that has attracted worldwide interest. Troy Anthony Davis is charged with the 1989 murder of police officer Mark Allen MacPhail. Davis has been in prison for 19 years, most of that time on death row.
Circumstances surrounding officer MacPhail's death are murky. The violence erupted in a dimly-lit parking lot late at night when someone in a group of men opened fire with a .38 caliber pistol.
That "someone," according to the lawyer prosecuting the case, was Troy Davis.
But Davis, who was 20 at the time, was very likely framed.
In the absence of solid physical evidence, including a murder weapon (the gun was supposedly never found) witness testimony is especially crucial. However, most of the witnesses had been drinking, and once the shooting started, they were seeking cover.
Witnesses were coerced. One was threatened with 10-12 years in jail if he didn't implicate Davis. Another, Sylvester Redd Coles, was himself a suspect in the shooting. Coles had brandished a .38 earlier in the evening. He told the court he'd thrown the gun away.
Key testimony came from a woman standing 160 feet away, looking at four black men scrambling about in a fracas that was "over before it began." Pressured into identifying Davis at the trial, the woman called his defense that night said it was all lies. When that was reported to the court, the woman, Dorothy Ferrell, was arrested. Her lawyer told her she could be convicted of perjury and imprisoned for ten years.
"She was a single mother of four," observes attorney Deirdre O'Connor, director of Innocence Matters. "She chose freedom over the truth."
Another witness said he couldn't identify the shooter - when questioned that night, and again a month later. Two years later, he confidently identified Davis as the murderer.
Of the nine witnesses who testified against Davis, seven have tried to recant. However, the recantations have been blocked for technical reasons.
Despite the shakiness of the case against Davis, the U.S. Supreme Court decided October 14, 2008 not to hear Davis's appeal. Justice John Paul Stevens, speaking for the minority, questioned the adequacy of Georgia's appeal process. In another case involving Georgia, Stevens found "particularly troubling" Georgia's track record with respect to cases involving black defendants and white victims.
The U.S. Supreme court's decision tossed Troy Davis's life back into the hands of Georgia, whose supreme court had already denied the appeal on procedural grounds.
Prosecution lawyer Spencer Lawton, who out-lawyered Davis's meager defense team in the original trial, continues to press for the death penalty. Lawton was recently interviewed by radio journalist Dori Smith, who asked him if the unusually high proportion of witnesses trying to recant did not perhaps undermine the credibility of the trial testimony.
On the contrary, Lawton responded. The high number made the recantations "suspect." He called it "too much of a coincidence," and asked rhetorically if you couldn't trust the witnesses then, how were you going to trust them later?
Lawton went on to suggest that the clamor raised on behalf of Troy Davis by public interest groups like ACLU, Amnesty International, and the Innocence Project is tantamount to a "mob" gathered outside jurors' doors.
As for Davis's 19-year dance with death, Lawton says "Cases like this can't drag on forever," he said. "Everybody suffers," The family of the murdered police officer and even the defendant himself - Troy Davis -- are entitled to "closure."
Closure for Troy Davis is to be death?
If Lawton's Alice in Wonderland logic seems outrageous, it's the same logic that informed the Georgia Supreme Court's blinkered approach to the earlier appeal, when it allowed procedural gambits to override serious concern for justice.
It is the logic of the very "mob" that Lawton decries. One can't but ask, would the same mentality prevail if the accused were white?
More is at stake here than one man's life. Even setting aside the ethical and philosophical questions surrounding capital punishment, the fact remains: If Troy Davis cannot receive a fair and impartial trial in Georgia, this raises serious questions about the state's ability in this the twenty-first century to provide liberty and justice for all.
Troy Davis seeks closure in the form of justice. We all do.
David Morse is a journalist and human rights activist who has written extensively about Sudan. He may be reached at his web-site: www.david-morse.com