The Legal Lynching of Troy Davis

Troy Davis

The state of Georgia executed Troy Davis by lethal injection for his alleged role in the 1989 murder of off-duty Savannah police officer Mark MacPhail.

In the narrowest scope, the execution of Troy Davis demonstrates the paradox of the death penalty appeals protocol where, often, defendants wait years – or even decades – for sluggish movement until the courts suddenly act with striking speed and response as the death mechanisms are readied and prepared. Indeed, Davis’ execution made its way before the Supreme Court twice just minutes before execution. Each time they flirted with review, indicating perhaps something was askew, before handing it back to the state.

Similarly, the life of Troy Davis – nearly half of it spent behind bars – reminds onlookers of the legal system that once this (quite slow) train has left the station few moral or political forces possess the power to derail the state’s initial ruling. Believably, though perhaps to the disappointment of Twitter users, not even trending #IAMTROYDAVIS can override the power of the clemency board. Certainly, there are a handful of cases where – if deemed admissible – exculpatory evidence saves the day. For blacks, this is almost exclusively DNA, with whites and then minorities benefiting at lower but still mentionable rates. In comparison, other forms of reprieve – of less empirical justification like clemency – will presumably display results inversely for blacks and whites. While race is to remain for the indefinite future as the perpetual what if, we must suppose there are many in the court system that enjoy this ambiguity, whether consciously or otherwise.

In a broader scope of the Davis case, there appear to be various forms of a pervasive cowardliness upon the political ladder that climbs from local officials, through various state officials, finally reaching federal authorities, Supreme Court justices and the President himself. In effect there is a subtle gradient of racism beginning as often as crude police corruption which then undergoes a sort of deceptively cleansing transformation as it rises through the courts and official channels. Maintaining the ugly core, a new facade is constructed around cases such as Davis’, as its driving force shifts from the most base form of racist revenge – slowly – to a mixture of either fear of police brotherhoods, or psychological alignment which makes justice unattainable for those outside the paradigm. Verily, if it isn’t fear of offending the police fraternities, some basic investigation will reveal obvious bias. For Davis, he had to appeal to a board of five – three whites and two blacks. In a state with a notoriously racist history, it should come as no surprise the two blacks had significant history in law enforcement and prison management. Presumably, chosen with this fact in mind, figuring the identification with law enforcement rose above black identity and sympathy or bias.

It is the police brotherhood, or unmentionable fraternity that catalyzes such initial racist police steamrolling. In the Davis case, this began as it was revealed testimony from crucial eyewitnesses – perhaps the keystone of a trial which uniformly lacked physical evidence against the defendant – were forced to do so at the threat of frivolous legal prosecution. Further, Savannah police corrupted lineup identification to the point results should have almost certainly been completely inadmissible. Among those witnesses was Dorothy Ferrell who said in the original trial “Well, I’m real sure, positive sure, that that is him, and you know, it’s not a mistaken identity, I did see him and you know, on the fact of what happened and how it happened, you know, I’m pretty sure it’s him.” Despite that display of certainty, Ferrell later signed an affidavit entirely recanting the testimony, along with multiple other witnesses. They said they told the police what they wanted to hear. At the time of the initial investigation in 1989, it would have been unlikely investigators thought an international spotlight would develop over the next two decades. Much to the dismay of Davis supporters worldwide, the courts routinely decided in the favor of the police.

As the analytic framework is expanded, the problems within the criminal court system illustrate such clear logical errors in justice – particularly in cases involving blacks and police officers – that judges and other legal actors (such as parole and clemency boards) often seem to operate under such radically developed bias that it extends into the realm of psychological entrenchment. Perhaps this is why much of the educated world displays raw shock while the US court system can simultaneously issue the death penalty sentences to blacks in astonishingly high numbers – sometimes with no physical evidence whatsoever – while a glance at cases of police brutality displays almost universal findings of “not guilty” or no charges at all, increasingly with no regard for video evidence.

In fact, to look at trials where police are the defendants in cases of significant wrongdoing, there is a fundamentally different nature to prosecution’s approach. Instead of proving a murder, for instance, the quest is to analyze stress or reasonable misidentification can be put to blame rather than the officer himself – as if it exists in some Cartesian duelist form where the officer is simply the body and the thoughts exists outside as a distinct entity. Such a defense (even in “self-defense”) elsewhere would bring a flood of laughter and a swift sentencing. Uncertainty, especially with the inclusion of some psychological mysteries regarding intention, fear and a dozen other mental states almost uniformly favor the prosecution in criminal cases where police are the perpetrators or the victim is white. All of this, of course, against the nominal bedrock of American justice – guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

There are caveats, lone rangers and shocking acquittals and convictions. Occasionally, police officers charged with official misconduct and crimes face hard-time, or innocent death row inmates find sympathy and clemency from an executive office. The West Memphis 3 were released recently (but…”what if…?“), while a two Fullerton, California police officers were charged in the brutal murder of a mentally retarded man (though time will tell if it goes the way of Johannes Mehserle). Statistically, these anomalies are insignificant against overwhelming trends and data. To many prosecutors and legal actors embedded in the American legal institution, they’re all the proof they need.

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