Posted: September 21st, 2011 | By: John Trump
Twenty years ago, in 1991, Troy Davis was convicted of killing a police officer in Savannah, Ga. On Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2011, the Georgia board of pardons denied a bid to delay his execution, and state officials scheduled his death for the following day at 7 p.m.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court granted Davis a temporary reprieve. The high court agreed at the last minute to reconsider the case and weighed arguments by Davis’s legal team and the state of Georgia over whether he deserved a stay. But the reprieve was brief. Davis was executed just after 11 p.m. Mark Rabil and Darryl Hunt believe Davis died an innocent man.
Davis, says Hunt, was, like him, wrongly accused and convicted. Hunt was exonerated in 2004 after spending 20 years in prison after he was convicted of a rape and murder in Winston-Salem. “He’s innocent,” Hunt said. “I was one vote away from that (being executed) myself.”
Hunt and Rabil spoke during a news conference Tuesday at the Wake Forest University School of Law. Rabil was one of Hunt’s attorneys and is the director of the Wake Forest law school’s Innocence and Justice Clinic. Attending the press conference were students from the law school as well as undergraduates from WFU, UNC-Greensboro, Winston-Salem State University and North Carolina A&T University.
A week before, some 100 people, including Hunt, Rabil, Wake Forest law students and alumni, boarded buses for Atlanta, where they marched and demonstrated in support of Davis.
“In Troy’s case, seven of the nine witnesses have recanted,” Hunt says. “That’s just too much doubt to be executing somebody on.”
The case has gained international attention after Davis’s supporters raised concerns that he was a victim of mistaken identity. Several of the witnesses who helped convict Davis at his 1991 trial have backed off their testimony or recanted, the Associated Press reported, and others who did not testify say another man at the scene admitted to the shooting.
“The rally and march on behalf of Troy Davis was a moving experience, and we were all very hopeful that this man’s life could be saved, “said Leslie Greening, a Wake Forest law student who joined the rally in Atlanta.
“It was particularly poignant to hear speakers declare that this was a movement of support for both the Davis family and the MacPhail family. Hearing the sad news today that Troy Davis’s appeal was denied is a blow. I want to be a part of the criminal justice system, and I don’t think the system worked in this case.”
Wake Forest law student Paul Derohannesian said the trip to Atlanta opened people’s eyes to other dimensions of the criminal justice system not usually seen or thought about. It brought to light, he said, the inherent challenges in making the criminal justice system live up to its ideals.
“The experience, including being at Ebenezer Baptist Church, reminds me of Martin Luther King’s famous sentiment, ‘With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope,’” Derohannesian said.
“While disappointed in the outcome in the Davis case, it is heartening to see the deep commitment of so many people to justice. It inspires those of us interested in working in the criminal justice system to work harder in our jobs for justice, equity and fairness.”
Last year the U.S. Supreme Court ordered an evidentiary hearing in regard to Davis’s innocence claim due to the recantantations, but the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia upheld the conviction, going as far as to say “Davis is not innocent.”
In 1989, off-duty Savannah officer Mark MacPhail was shot and killed while trying help a homeless man who was being attacked. Prosecutors, according to the AP, say they have no doubt that they charged the right person with the crime, and MacPhail’s family lobbied the pardons board to reject Davis’s clemency appeal.
Rabil said the Davis case is an example of the tragic tendency of courts to reject new evidence of innocence, even when compelling, simply to uphold the finality of court decisions.
“In our clinic, I teach that there are many gateways to proving innocence, in addition to the traditional court avenues,” he said. “I believe that it was very educational for our students to experience a long bus ride to and from Atlanta, led by exoneree Darryl Hunt, and to march with thousands in support of a likely innocent man on death row.
“The students got to see firsthand the effects on what we do in court on individuals in society. It was a lot harder to endure a long bus ride, and three-hour interfaith service, than to send an email, or simply read a case. Maybe this ride will serve as a meditation for our students on the courageous actions of the civil rights freedom riders decades ago.”
Minutes after the execution, Rabil told WFMY Channel 2 that the death penalty process has never worked. “It costs millions of dollars and the murder rate has not gone down,” he said. “It’s not a deterrent and it doesn’t provide closure for the family of the victim.”
Rabil said he was very sad to see the execution go forward despite all the evidence. “I firmly believe the family of the officer was led to believe a story and they will not get closure from this. The Troy Davis case exemplifies the problem with the death penalty and because we are humans there is no certainty.”