Beyond the Death Penalty: The Troy Davis Case and the Travesty of Eyewitness Misidentification
On Wednesday, September 21, 2011 at 11:08 pm (est.), Troy Davis was executed by the State of Georgia. Troy Davis has always maintained his innocence. Even as he was strapped to a gurney, while the poison that was about to kill him ran though his veins, he maintained his innocence. Troy Davis had been close to being executed before, but this time, after hours of delay from when his execution was scheduled, and with the first of the three drugs running through his vein, he knew this was the end. Troy Davis said at this moment that he is innocent. When a prisoner goes before a parole board hearing and maintains his innocence, chances are he’s innocent as the parole board is likely to deny parole if an individual insists that he is innocent because, in the mind of the parole board, there is no showing of remorse. Prisoners know and understand this and thus face a dilemma, do I lie and say I am guilty for a chance at freedom, or do I maintain my innocence for the sake of my integrity and jeopardize my chance at freedom. By the same token, when a prisoner on death row is strapped to the gurney with the realization that he only has seconds remaining on this earth maintains his innocence, chances are that that person is innocent. I cannot imagine someone facing death would choose to lie on his deathbed, after all, that is when confessions are generally made.
Regardless of whether someone takes this as a sign of innocence, it is problematic when some of the very witnesses who helped to put an individual on death row signed an affidavit stating that they gave false testimony, some under threat and coercion of law enforcement. Absent physical evidence, the testimony of eyewitnesses are crucial. At what point should this testimony count- only at the point of the arrest and trial? Should we as American citizens tolerate the finality of an execution because the prosecutor was able to use his power to get a conviction at all costs? Even if one doesn’t support abolishing of the death penalty, shouldn’t we as Americans demand that if someone has to be put to death, that there is absolute certainly that he/she is guilty- beyond a reasonable doubt? There was reasonable doubt in Troy’s case.
Many innocent people remain in prison due to faulty eyewitness identification. According to the Innocence Project, “Eyewitness misidentification is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide, playing a role in more than 75% of convictions overturned through DNA testing.” Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, stated in a recent USA Today article that the Supreme Court will soon address a case that may change how eyewitness testimony is handled. Specifically, “the U.S. Supreme Court in November is slated to hear a New Hampshire case that asks whether courts should throw out eyewitness testimony that’s been influenced by friends and neighbors in the same way they would reject witnesses tainted by police” (http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/story/2011-09-27/troy-davis-eyewitness-testimony/50563754/1). Many people who otherwise would not pay attention to death row inmates and prisoners in general were able to take a look inside the system. Many are outraged, as evidenced by the widespread support for Troy Davis.
Beyond Abolishing the Death Penalty: Start at the Source
I applaud the NAACP for its past, present, and future actions regarding Troy Davis. His case will be remembered and the people it has shaken will be a force for change. Just as there were African Americans who protested having to sit at the back of the bus before Rosa Parks, just as there were brutal murders of African American activists before Medgar Evers, just as there were young boys brutally murdered in Mississippi before Emmett Till, these individuals, these outrageous acts, occurred at moments when people were sick of the injustices and sick of tolerating it. Just as it is likely that innocent people before Troy Davis who were put to death by the state, it is at this moment that people are outraged and this outrage can and will begin the next movement surrounding the criminal justice system.
But this can’t be just about abolishing the death penalty, it must also be about putting mechanisms in place at the local, state, and federal level to help prevent the arrest and conviction of innocent people. For example, the state of North Carolina established the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, the only state that has such a commission, where individuals with claims of innocence, even if they’ve exhausted appeals, have a chance to have their cases heard. Several people have been exonerated and freed since this commission has been in place, including two last month. Dallas County, Texas District Attorney Craig Watkins has implemented a Conviction Integrity Unity to both ensure the integrity of the conviction and to work with innocence projects on cases where there is evidence of innocence. As a result, several people have been freed and exonerated in Dallas County, Texas. His office has announced that non-DNA cases will also be considered.
NAACP President Ben Jealous sent a message the day after the October 1 Memorial Service for Troy Davis that calls for the end to capital punishment, telling District Attorneys and candidates for the Office of District Attorney that they will not receive our votes if they send people to death row, and calling on people to vote (from an email dated October 2, 2011). Again, I applaud these efforts by the NAACP, but unless we get a handle on the causes of wrongful convictions, even without the death penalty, prosecutors can engage in the same tactics to get a conviction that will lead to an individual spending 1, 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, 35 years and even life in prison for crimes he or she did not commit. Troy Davis spent 20 years on death row.
The Case of Rodney K. Stanberry
This issue is personal to me as I have a cousin who is in his 15th year of incarceration for crimes he did not commit. Rodney K. Stanberry was arrested in 1992, convicted in 1995, and began serving a prison sentence in 1997. Information about his case can be found at www.freerodneystanberry.com. He was convicted solely based on victim eyewitness identification. He was convicted even though another person confessed to committing the crimes IN FRONT OF THE PROSECUTOR two years before Rodney’s trial. The jury never heard this confession. Exculpatory evidence was not provided to Rodney and his attorney. Work documents, co-workers and supervisors placed Rodney and his vehicle at work. He passed a polygraph exam. And there was no physical evidence placing him at the victim’s home when the crimes took place. There is much evidence to point to the truth– that he was convicted for crimes he did not commit. Rodney Stanberry did not receive the death penalty, but he did receive three 20 year sentences on attempted murder, 1st degree burglary and robbery. While the current Mobile District Attorney, Ashley Rich, has received an award for the number of people she’s sent to death row, the mindset of the original prosecutor in Rodney’s case (Buzz Jordan) was to get a conviction at all costs. The latter mindset will continue even if the death penalty is abolished. This is why advocacy to abolish the death penalty, needs to be coupled with an effort to impose reforms at all levels to help prevent wrongful convictions. The depriving of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for the wrongfully accused starts at the conviction and continues throughout the incarceration. We have to get a handle on wrongful convictions. District Attorneys and State Legislatures must be told that unless you implement reforms, you will not get our vote.
In a statement by Troy Davis dated September 10, 2011, he wrote in part:
“So Thank you and remember I am in a place where execution can only destroy your physical form but because of my faith in God, my family and all of you I have been spiritually free for some time and no matter what happens in the days, weeks to come, this Movement to end the death penalty, to seek true justice, to expose a system that fails to protect the innocent must be accelerated. There are so many more Troy Davis ’. This fight to end the death penalty is not won or lost through me but through our strength to move forward and save every innocent person in captivity around the globe. We need to dismantle this Unjust system city by city, state by state and country by country. “(http://redantliberationarmy.wordpress.com/2011/09/11/to-all-a-message-from-troy-anthony-davis/)
Let’s roll up our sleeves, take off our bedroom slippers and put on our marching shoes, and tell District Attorneys and State Legislatures that we can be a society of law and order while also working to prevent wrongful convictions.
Peace and Sincerely,