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Don’t Let Them Execute an Innocent Man

WHAT WILL be the fate of death row prisoner Troy Anthony Davis? Will the state of Georgia get its way and put him to death?

Troy and his supporters held out hope that his case would finally be heard when the U.S. Supreme Court intervened in late September to stop–with two hours to spare–him from being executed.

But on October 14, the Supreme Court announced without explanation that it wouldn’t consider Troy’s appeal to have a jury hear the evidence which he says proves he is an innocent man.

Officials in Georgia wasted no time in setting a new execution date of October 27–and now Troy’s family and supporters are preparing for an all-out effort to stop him from becoming another victim of America’s machinery of death.

The facts of Troy’s case cry out for something to be done. He was convicted in 1991 of killing a white police officer. No physical evidence connected Troy to the crime. But nine witnesses took the stand and testified that they either heard Troy say he committed the murder or saw him do it. Their testimony got Troy the death sentence.

But now, seven of these witnesses say they lied when they implicated Troy. Some say they felt pressured by police; others simply say they were young and scared. All seven can explain convincingly why they didn’t tell the truth at the trial–and why they are doing so now, even though that means facing possible jail time.

Of the two remaining witnesses who haven’t recanted, one is completely unclear about what he saw the night of the murder, and the other was the police’s first suspect–that is, he could very well have been the person who did pull the trigger. Several people now say they heard this man, Sylvester Coles, confess to killing the officer.

Troy’s lawyers have argued that Troy deserves to have this evidence heard by a jury. But every court has denied him that basic opportunity to show that he is, indeed, innocent.

* * *

TROY FACED an execution date in 2007, and another in late September after the Georgia Supreme Court denied his appeal for a new trial by a 4-3 vote. The second execution was stopped by the U.S. Supreme Court so the nine justices could decide whether they would hear the appeal. After more than two weeks of delays, they announced their decision not to take up the case.

Why did the Supreme Court deny Troy? They don’t have to disclose their reasoning in appeals like these, so we may never know. But one has to wonder how these nine people can see the case so differently than millions in the U.S. and around the world. Why would they not allow another trial, so all the evidence, undistorted this time by police coercion of witnesses, could be heard? Why the rush to execute?

Troy himself regularly points out what the justice system has at stake in his case. A favorable decision would acknowledge the problem of police harassment and coercion, not just for Troy, but for many other people. If his appeal is granted, the door would open to more petitions by prisoners for new evidence of innocence to be heard–and that is a door the justice system has been trying to close for 30 years.

From 1976 to 1995, death row appeals in the federal courts won in more than half of all situations. Since then, federal appeals work in less than 10 percent of cases.

Why? In 1996, Congress passed, and Bill Clinton signed into law, the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), which put strict limits on federal judges taking up death row appeals.

Clinton hailed the new law as he signed it. “I have long sought to streamline federal appeals for convicted criminals sentenced to the death penalty,” he said. “For too long, and in too many cases, endless death row appeals have stood in the way of justice being served. From now on, criminals sentenced to death row for their vicious crimes will no longer be able to use endless appeals to delay their sentences.”

But what the law has meant is that death row prisoners can’t get a hearing in the courts, no matter how strong their claims.

So it isn’t true that the cases coming before the courts now are somehow less worthy of review than before 1996. What’s true is that Bill Clinton’s law has made it much, much harder for a prisoner to get the federal courts to act–because the burden of proof is so much higher.

The Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act is one more injustice of the tough-on-crime, lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key mentality that has dominated among politicians for decades.

In 1976, when the Supreme Court’s short-lived ban on executions was lifted, we were told that the death penalty system was fixed, and executions could be carried out fairly. But Troy Davis’ case illustrates the fact that nothing has changed–that the system is infected by racism and bias against the poor.

Troy’s fight is once again coming down to the wire. But it is not too late to stop a tragic ending.

Troy’s supporters and opponents of the death penalty system are mobilizing to demand that the governor of Georgia, state legislators and the state Board of Pardons and Paroles recognize the injustice that is about to be done–and do the right thing.

It isn’t true that nothing can be done. If the federal government can rush in to bail out Wall Street, then state legislators can rush in to save Troy.

But they won’t do it unless we mobilize to make them. Amnesty International and other anti-death penalty groups are organizing for a day of action on October 23. The centerpiece of the day will be a demonstration in Atlanta on the steps of the capitol building. Already, say activists, four busloads are coming from North Carolina and Savannah, Ga., Troy’s hometown.

Other efforts include a campaign calling on religious leaders to show their support for Troy. Members of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and other groups are organizing petitionings in neighborhoods, churches and college campuses, and they plan to organize speakouts and rallies around the country on October 23.

A groundswell of pressure is the only thing that can save Troy. We have to give it all we have.

MARLENE MARTIN is national director of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty

What you can do

Troy’s family and Amnesty International are calling a global day of action against his execution on October 23. In Atlanta, supporters will gather at 6 p.m. on the steps of the Georgia State Capitol, 206 Washington St., SW. For more information on this action and Troy’s case, see “Finality Over Fairness” on Amnesty’s Web site.

The Campaign to End the Death Penalty is mobilizing for the day of action and encouraging members, supporters and allies to display their opposition and organize a solidarity action. If you are planning an action, please send the announcement to julien@nodeathpenalty.org [2].

You can e-mail or fax the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles [3] and call on the board to grant clemency for Troy through Amnesty’s Troy Davis Online Action Center. Find out more about Troy’s case at the Troy Anthony Davis Web site.

 

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