Monday, July 16, 2007

Pointing Fingers on Human Rights Abuses

Of course he is only a black man and it is Georgia.

Troydavis Of course he is only a black man and it is Georgia.

And if that makes your Georgians angry, you can forget about e-mailing me and pick up your phone. Take a glance at your watch. You have until 7pm tomorrow (July 17). Just as Entertainment Tonight comes on WTVQ, the state of Georgia will be putting to death an inarguably innocent man.

Troy Davis is that man. At the Burger King where he had stopped, late one night, a white security guard was shot and killed in the parking lot. Everyone took off, which is what you do when you’re black and a white cop is shot. That's not particular to Savannah, it happens in Chicago, Detroit and Burlington, Iowa.

That Davis was not the shooter won’t keep him from dying for it.

The Georgia state Board of Pardons and Paroles may commute Davis’s sentence. After eighteen years, they’re meeting today, Monday--the Board has its own sense of drama. Troy is, in his words, “just trying to hold myself together.” The odds are not with him. Since 1973, the Board has voted 42-8 in favor of death.

The fact is that we (the collective, holier-than-thou, we) need not point in the direction of Russia or China for human rights abuses, when we can find just such perversions across America. And like Russia and China, America finds itself in an international spotlight.

Midnightinthegarden I’ve been to Savannah. Lovely small city, setting for John Berendt’s best-selling Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. 216 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list and not a word in it about (then) 20 year-old (now 38) Troy Davis.

Midnight's plot is based on real-life events that occurred in 1980s Savannah and the city would like to ‘move on’ from those heady old days. The book is classified as nonfiction, but Troy’s night in the Garden happened in ’89 and was probably just a tad too late to become a John Berendt plot twist.

Savannah is deep South and although racial prejudice is certainly not limited to the South, genteel small cities like Savannah tend to arrange themselves between extremes of cultured civility and coon-dog racism. Martin Luther King’s words no longer ring in this part of the South, if indeed they ever rang at all. I don’t point that out with the innocence and sanctimony of a Northerner, because we are none of us innocent. I have lived in eight decades and remember with a degree of pain and embarrassment my own casual racism in the then-segregated city of Evanston, Illinois.

Mikenifong Interestingly, when the Duke University men’s lacrosse team hired strippers for a party and got nailed by an over-ambitious prosecutor who mishandled evidence, their ‘agony of trial’ lasted a year before the prosecutor was brought up on charges, the case dismissed and the University came up with undisclosed restitution. The whole nation followed the case breathlessly, through constant commentary and updates on TV. The prosecuting attorney, Mike Nifong, was ultimately disbarred and disgraced.

Harm done, but not irreparable harm. No such luck for Davis.

Mel Wilson, the prosecuting attorney who turned a blind eye to coerced false testimony in order to railroad Troy Davis onto death row, has not been disbarred and is not disgraced (unless his conscience rags at him tomorrow night at seven). There’s precious little evidence of that. Mel has declined to stand for reelection. Thirty years is enough for him. Just over half of those years (18), Troy Davis had every meal on death row. Almost 20,000 prison meals attributable to a late-night snack at Burger King and Mel Wilson’s criminally unpunished disregard of the law he was elected to uphold.

The prosecution based its case on the testimony of purported "witnesses," many of whom allege police coercion. Seven of the nine non-police witnesses for the prosecution have recanted their testimony in sworn affidavits. One witness signed a police statement declaring that Davis was the assailant, then later said, "I did not read it because I cannot read." In another case a witness stated that the police "were telling me that I was an accessory to murder and that I would ... go to jail for a long time and I would be lucky if I ever got out, especially because a police officer got killed ... I was only 16 and was so scared of going to jail."

There are also several witnesses who have implicated another man in the murder. According to one woman, "People on the streets were talking about Sylvester Coles being involved with killing the police officer, so one day I asked him ... Sylvester told me that he did shoot the officer."

One of the two witnesses who has not recanted his testimony is Sylvester "Red" Coles – the principle alternative suspect, according to the defense, against whom there is new evidence implicating him as the gunman. Nine individuals have signed affidavits implicating Sylvester Coles. (Amnesty International)

Supremecourt Harm done, this time irreparable, at least by a court. Third-world harm to an innocent American citizen because of a gutless, legally flawed, ethically indefensible and mean-spirited Supreme Court decision.

It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of the death penalty, mostly because it is so often misused and applied with discrimination against minorities. I wrote about Tookie Wilson because that was a death-penalty case in which I thought Wilson had been substantially rehabilitated. I was pleased when the outgoing Illinois governor commuted all the death-row sentences at Stateville, because of his belief that too many had been brought there by means of faulty evidence.

But faulty evidence or rehabilitation is not the issue with Troy Davis. Hubris on the part of a racially biased southern court and police system, unsupportably supported by the highest court in the land, is the issue.

How come successive courts, all the way to the Supreme Court  have turned their backs on such obvious injustice? The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, precursor to the Patriot Act, both of them rushed into law by a stupid, vicious and panicked Congress, is largely to blame. The former Act has a neat little caveat that precludes reopening a habeas corpus petition in any court if a ruling has already been made.

New evidence? Confessions? Tough shit. Bad law, terrible law and the Supremes turned their backs and went off to lunch.

The stated purpose of the Act was to

"deter terrorism, provide justice for victims, provide for an effective death penalty, and for other purposes."

Other purposes apparently include imprisoning and then executing the falsely accused when improperly found guilty. It called itself the Effective Death Penalty Act and no possibility of appeals is certainly effective.

Burgerking Stopping off for a Whopper at midnight can be injurious to your health. If it’s dark as hell, you’re black as the night, the scene is confused and a white cop ends up dead, it can be fatal.

In 2006, the federal appeals court in Atlanta turned down a Davis appeal. Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker, issuing a statement, lauded that ruling, saying he was pleased the state "was close to seeing justice done in this case."

You want fries with that?
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