LATE IN the afternoon of Sept. 12, the final chapter was written in the 19-year legal battle surrounding Troy Anthony Davis. After receiving a temporary stay of execution last July, Davis was denied clemency by Georgia’s Board of Pardons and Parole, the last administrative body that could have commuted Davis’s death sentence.
The Davis case has been one of the most complex, divisive legal struggles Savannah has ever seen, rivaling even the Jim Williams case in every sense except glamour and hoodoo. The murder of Mark MacPhail wasn’t a high society who-dunnit, but the brutal shooting of an off-duty police officer in the early morning hours of a hot summer night.
For those familiar with the case, there’s no middle ground—one either sides with the prosecution’s belief that Davis is guilty and deserves to die; or with the defense’s claim that he was falsely accused and unjustly incarcerated—and there is no easy answer.
For the District Attorney, there’s the fact that Davis was convicted and sentenced after the testimony of nine witnesses linked him to the murder. For the defense, there is the recanted testimony of seven of those witnesses, along with allegations of police coercion and a distinct lack of physical evidence.
The day before the board decided Davis’s fate, with storm clouds gathering ominously, a group of 40 Savannahians boarded a bus at the corner of Gwinnett and MLK. Had it not been for the swarm of local news crews, passersby might have assumed it was a church group heading out for a day trip.
But the gathering of people, who ranged in age from 16–70, had a more politically charged purpose. They were preparing to depart for a rally in Atlanta on the steps of the Georgia Capitol in support of Troy Anthony Davis.
“This case transcends to people in similar situations,” says Perrice Austin, one of the people who lead the trip. “I’m not talking about setting guilty people free. It’s about a support system for people who never had a voice.”
The group of locals who boarded the bus—which included members of Davis’s family, people who knew him and complete strangers who had simply heard about the case—were ready to endure the long trip in hope that their voices could help sway the board to commute Davis’s sentence until there was certainty whether he was guilty.
“If he was guilty, it would have been over already,” says Timmetrieous Bowens, a Coffee Bluff resident who recently heard about the case and wanted to take part in the rally. “They don’t have all the facts, and they don’t have any evidence. By helping Davis, we’re helping the community. We’re showing the justice system that we won’t allow this to happen.”
The shared sentiment on the bus is that what happened to Davis, if he was falsely accused, could happen to anyone—a message reinforced later at the rally with T-shirts reading “I Am Troy Davis,” and chants of the same message.
The group from Savannah is among the first at the rally. They are joined by members of Amnesty International, the organization that planned the rally. Within an hour, the crowd has grown to over 100, representing a variety of different political and social organizations.
The energy of the crowd is palpable and powerful. “It’s a testimony to the human spirit,” says Austin, as we stand slightly back from everyone, surveying the scene. “People don’t come together like this for malarkey. It’s for something they believe in, and they know the facts. Some used to think he was guilty, but then they learned more about the case.”
Rumors circulate that the parole board has received over 25,000 letters on behalf of Troy in the last few days. Several people mention that you can now send the board text messages as well, and that one radio appearance by Troy’s sister Martina generated over 1,000 texts in just a matter of minutes.
While Davis’s supporters chant and wave signs, a stage is erected and a PA system is set up. As the focus turns to the stage, a series of speakers, including Amnesty International’s Executive Director Larry Cox, Georgia NAACP Conference President Edward DuBose, advocate Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, and Troy’s sister Martina Correia, among others, all speak to the crowd, which is now closer to 500 in total.
“That Troy has lived another year is testament to justice,” Cox says, referring to the board’s granting Davis a temporary stay of execution, and then reiterating the board’s promise from the previous year not to execute if any doubts remained.
Thompson-Cannino, a former rape victim whose false identification put the wrong man in jail for almost a decade, speaks of how, despite her best efforts to remember the features of the man who assaulted her, an innocent man would have been executed if he had not been exonerated later by DNA evidence.
As Correia addresses the crowd, someone steps up behind her and hands her a cell phone. It is Davis himself on the other end, and he talks to the crowd by speakerphone. “Until I’m free, justice is not done,” he tells the rapt audience.
As the event comes to a close, in an unexpected act of kindness one of the capitol police officers invites the busload of Savannahians to his church for a fish dinner before beginning the long journey home. As they enter the wood-paneled church basement where rows of folding tables lead to a buffet line along the back wall, a sense of exhaustion and thankfulness mingles with the familiar smells of home-cooking.
“Look at what your son brought together,” someone says to Virginia Davis, Troy’s mother, reflecting on the day and looking at the packed church hall. The comment ties in with an underlying theme of the day, that there must be a greater purpose to this man’s suffering.
But, at the same time that there’s hope that Davis’s suffering could lead to reform, there is an unspoken element of distrust in this idea of a greater justice. Rather than leave it to fate, here are hundreds of people taking action to try and ensure that the right thing is done.
Back on the bus with full stomachs, the mood is positive. There is talk of holding another rally in Savannah. “Remember this wasn’t just a one day trip,” someone says. “This is a job.”
While last year’s clemency hearing for Davis was one of the longest in state history, this time the board would deliberate less than two hours before making their decision. And despite all the effort that had gone into the rally one day earlier, the high spirits of those on the bus would be dashed when Davis was denied clemency.
This case, that for so many seemed like it would never end, seems to have come to a close. cs