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Troy Davis at his high school graduation.
I took an interest in the case of Troy Davis several years ago, when I read of his appeals and pending execution on the website of the NAACP, of which I am a proud and grateful member. What struck me at once is the fact that this man is facing execution for murder, in a case for which the prosecution presented no physical evidence. There is and never has been any actual or circumstantial evidence linking Mr. Davis to the murder for which a Savannah, Georgia, jury convicted him more than 20 years ago. The prosecution’s case consisted of testimony from nine witnesses, one of whom first reported to the police the day after the murder, that Mr. Davis was guilty of this terrible crime. In the years since his conviction, seven of the nine witnesses have recanted their testimony, citing pressure from law enforcement and the prosecution team, in their original testimony. This stunned me, and does to this day: We can send a fellow human being to his death in a conviction which is without physical evidence, and rests entirely on witness testimony, the majority of which has been recanted and withdrawn? That pair of factors in the case of Troy Davis stopped me cold, and have troubled me deeply, ever since.
Let me say outright, that I do not believe in the death penalty, period. My sole reason for this, is that we can never go back and undo the punishment, when we make mistakes. Mistakes aren’t made: we, as human being,s make them, in every area of our lives. So perhaps I’m just using a side argument to push my agenda of wanting capital punishment to end. Such is not the case. I know that capital punishment is legal, and that we are using it in the USA today. But it is one piece of our system of justice, and that system requires that before we exact that ultimate penalty, before we end a human life, we must find them guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
My area of expertise is not capital punishment or legal precedent or the judicial system; my area of expertise, as a food writer and cooking teacher, is cooking and eating, and the stories, people, and meaning behind food. But I consider myself an expert on capital punishment; I think we are all experts on capital punishment, because we are the ones who made it up. The folks who take the actions, who perform the actual deeds of execution, are doing so on my behalf, and yours, and hers and his. It’s “The People vs. whomever-it-is”, and “We the people…more perfect union….etc.” So it’s not like building suspension bridges or performing knee surgery where there is a body of knowledge and expertise that we rely on others to learn and handle. This is the justice system and it is yours and mine, and our only hope of its being just and right and righteous, is for it to make sense, and to follow its own rules (which came from us).
Big rule we all know from civics and television (Perry Mason! Hill Street Blues! LA Law! Law & Order!) is that people accused of crimes must be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. What jumped out at me the first time I came across Mr. Davis’s case (I believe by following NAACP and Color of Change on the web) is that indelible fact that he was convicted and sentenced to die even though there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime. None.
So Troy Davis was convicted based solely on eyewitness testimony. Nine eyewitnesses. Despite powerful research showing how unreliable eyewitness testimony is, we continue to believe that eyewitness testimony is just about the best durn thing a jury could have to go on! In fact it is notoriously and verifiably unreliable, both in terms of people remembering accurately and well, and in the good possibility of getting someone to say something which is not in fact true, by either rewarding them or threatening to punish them if they don’t do so. So without any physical evidence, we the people had nine witnesses, who testified that Mr. Davis committed this crime. Some said they saw it; others said that he confessed to him soon afterward that he had committed the crim. Seven of them have since recanted, saying that their testimony was coerced, forced, or tainted, by the law enforcement officers who interviewed them and by the prosecutorial team who directed their testimony at trial.
Now we come to race. It is very difficult, uncomfortable, even repugnant, for the majority of my fellow white people to believe (to even think the thought!) that officers of the law would ever stoop so low as to coerce or solicit false testimony from a witness. That would just not be right! Where would we be if that were true!!!? We have never ever seen such a thing! And if that were happening commonly, we would know about it because we know stuff. Otherwise, how could we run stuff, the way we do? We, the people of privilege, cannot imagine a world where that would be the case.
I personally believe that it is not uncommon for some small percentage of  law enforcement people to abuse their power. Why would we deny the possibility of this being true?  Everybody else does: teachers, preachers, priests, members of congress, judges, casting directors, parents, bankers; It simply happens. Everybody is not nice, and and everyone does not do right all the time. Especially when we look back decades, to this particular case, when a fellow law officer had just been murdered in cold blood, while off duty and coming to the aid of a homeless man who was being beaten: the possibility that some law enforcement officers and later prosecutors used coercion and reward in order to get witnesses to testify in a certain way for a certain outcome, is very strong.
Do I know this personally? No. I’ve never been questioned by the police in a private place with no way for the world to know exactly what took place. If I were to be, I think my status in this world (white middle class educated woman of a certain age) makes it unlikely that I personally would be mistreated by law enforcement officers. Same goes for everyone in my family. And in terms of what I know from personal experience about coercion and wrong-doing by law enforcement? Not much.
But personal experience is usually not required for us as citizens, in order to have a valid, respected opinion. I’ve never been raped either, or molested, or carjacked, or sexually harassed, or home-invaded, or kidnapped, and yet I believe that all these things are possible and that they happen to people, and I have an opinion as to what we should do about those things because they are crimes and they are wrong.
So now we have a man accused by nine other people, with no physical evidence; and seven of the nine officially recanting their testimony and reporting that their testimony was coerced; and we have a murder victim who was white, and a man accused of committing the murder who is black. And we have documented clearly and forcefully that institutional racism thrives in our justice system. Juries apply punishment differently depending on the race of the victim and the accused, with crimes against white people by black people punished much more harshly.
Now I get personal. I think: if my brother or son or dear friend from college were about to be put to death, and there was no physical evidence, and 7 of nine witnesses had recanted and testified to coercion in that original testimony (we believe them when they say he did it, but we don’t believe them now when they recant?), would I shrug and say, “The jury made its decision.”? Would I stand by and let that happen? Can we as human beings really allow our fellow human being to be killed with no evidence and 7 of 9 witnesses recanting? Could that possibly be called “…beyond a reasonable doubt”?  Not to me.
If Troy Davis were white, would this be happening? I do not think so. Can I prove that? No, I can’t. I do wonder among death penalty cases, how many times a white person has been executed with no physical evidence and dramatic reversal in the witness tesimony over time. It is never ever acceptable. I wonder how things stand on this question.
Here is what is clear.  Nobody, no living human being, should be put to death with no physical evidence and no case outside eyewitness testimony. Period. White, black, any ethinicity. It is just wrong. It is not possible to meet the standard of proof that we set up in our justice system: Beyond a reasonable doubt. I am horrified to think that we are closing in on doing just that. Troy Davis and his legal team do not have to prove that he is innocent: How could anyone possibly do that? Innocence is seldom proved. The legal system is about proving guilt, beyond a reasonable doubt. The prosecution must prove its case. In the case of the people vs. Troy Davis, they did not do so. The enduring power of white supremacy is that we who are white don’t have to see it. We can enjoy its benefits, without having to acknolwedge it, while taking personal credit for its privileges, without having to sign off on it, and how it arranges, processes and decorates our lives. Amazing, powerful 400-year-old machine.
If somebody you know, and care about, were accused of murder, and convicted, and there were no physical evidence and 7 of 9 witnesses recanted under oath, citing pressure to make a case that prosecutors longed to make, would you shrug your shoulders and say, “The jury has spoken.”?  Would you say that the system is the system and we don’t really know how these things work? I don’t think we would. And when people say “I am Troy Davis”, they are applying that standard to themselves and to the facts of this case, to what we absolutely know about where we are right now. It’s actually an old-school guide for listening to your conscience, and it’s called the Golden Rule. If we think about and follow the Golden Rule, while applying our very own standard of justice (proven guilty by the prosecution, beyond a reasonable doubt), Troy Davis would not be facing execution this Wednesday, September 21st, 2011.
Troy Davis and his family
About the Author
Nancie McDermott is a food writer and cooking teacher, and the author of ten cookbooks. Her passion is researching and celebrating traditional food in its cultural context, and her beloved subjects are two seemingly different places with much in common: the cuisines of Asia and of the American South. Nancie gained her Southern kitchen wisdom as a Piedmont North Carolina native,and her Asian culinary research commenced soon after college, when she was sent to northeastern Thailand as a Peace Corps volunteer.
  1. Sally Reply

    Nancie, What an important, thoughtful and passionate piece. It is indeed a travesty; it should make us all ashamed of those who have the power to stop it and do not. (and don’t get me started on the death penalty) Thank you for making us aware of this case

    • Nancie McDermott Reply

      I so appreciate your words, Sally. I don’t believe in the death penalty at all, ever, solely because we cannot undo it, and punishing the truly horrid people in that way does not make up for one innocent person lost and there have been hundreds. But I accept that it’s what we do, and live with that — this brushing aside of the basic common sense of what reasonable doubt means, is disgusting. Shame on them. Innocence is not the question — we the people did not prove guilt, period. I’m dazed. So much admiration for his sisters; what love, what strength, what spirit and courage. We are all witnesses. They are not doing this evil thing in the darkness and without consequences.

  2. Jamie Reply

    Agree, agree and agree. What shocked me about this was not only there was no evidence and most of the witnesses recanted and said they had been coerced but that he always claimed his innocence and, correct me if I am wrong, there was at least one person who claimed to know the person who really committed the crime? Wow this is shameful… excrutiatingly shameful of us as Americans! But when I watched the GOP Debate and see the crowd actually cheering Gov Perry’s high rate of execution I am saddened, ashamed and shocked! Who are these people? Have they no humanity? You have written a beautiful, thoughtful and moving piece.

    • Nancie McDermott Reply

      Thank you so much, dear Jamie. It is chilling to see some people’s responses, and to see the leaps we so easily make over the very laws we claim to hold dear. Innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt: I keep repeating this, in amazement and in a daze, as I continue to ponder that our judicial system switched the game, and demanded that he prove himself innocent, that he prove he did not commit this crime. That is not our law; it is not what any good, reasonable person I know or would expect to meet, would accept as just and fair if they had any investment in a person caught in this unjust trap. No physical evidence. The multiplicity of things wrong with witness testimony in general, and the particularly sorry basketload of it in this case, makes the reliance on that part of the “case” a travesty. I hope this awakened awareness and conviction in people’s hearts; but even so, the price was too high. Thank you for reading this, and for your words.

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