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Stepping Back from the Brink of a Deadly Injustice

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Benjamin Todd Jealous, NNPA Guest Columnist

After years of heartbreak and disappointment, Troy Davis is finally getting a chance to have evidence heard in his case after being denied a fair trial since he was arrested almost two decades ago.

It should never have taken the American justice system this long to act.

Troy Davis was unjustly convicted and sentenced to die in 1991 for the murder of Mark MacPhail, an off-duty policeman who was shot while working a second job as a security guard at a Burger King in Savannah, Ga.

There was no physical evidence linking Troy to the crime and seven of the nine witnesses recanted or contradicted their testimony, citing police coercion. One witness, a 16-year-old, said police threatened to hold him as an accessory to murder, warning that he would “go to jail for a long time and I would be lucky if I ever got out because a police officer got killed.’’ Of the two eyewitnesses who stuck to their stories, Sylvester “Redd’’ Coles was himself considered a suspect in the killing. The other initially told police he could not identify the shooter. Brenda Forrest, one of the jurors, summed it up: “If I knew then what I know now, Troy Davis would not be on death row. The verdict would be not guilty.’’

Yet the courts stubbornly refused to hear Troy’s claims of innocence. After numerous legal rounds the U.S. Supreme Court on Aug. 17, in a 3-2 decision, finally took the extraordinary step of ordering the U.S. District Court in Georgia to consider and rule on Troy’s claim of innocence – a directive the high court hasn’t issued in almost 50 years. But it’s not justice yet.

The standard of proof in the evidentiary hearing turns our criminal justice system on his head. Troy will be expected to prove his innocence rather than for the state to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. We hope that this unfair burden of proof does not once again deny Troy the fair hearing all Americans deserve.

Hundreds of thousands of people have rallied to Troy’s cause. There were the well known like former President Jimmy Carter and actor Danny Glover.

There were the unexpected like former FBI director William Sessions and conservative Congressman Bob Barr. And there were the people all over the world galvanized by organizations like ours and Amnesty International who signed petitions and raised the visibility of the injustice of Troy Davis. Our Georgia branch tirelessly fought in the trenches, knocking on doors, holding marches, preaching in Georgia’s churches to bring the travesty to the light .

Earlier this year, I met Troy. I left the meeting convinced of his innocence. During my visit, I couldn’t help but notice the faces of several of the guards who for noticeable moments dropped their stony countenance, clearly moved by Troy’s plight.

Later, as I was leaving, I encountered a woman in the prison parking lot who told me that a neighbor, a former Georgia prison guard, quit rather than be forced to march Troy to the death chamber.

This victory is a testimony to the best of our country: Troy’s individual perseverance and humble courage through an excruciating ordeal, the selfless dedication of his sister who despite breast cancer waged a relentless struggle to save her brother and the grassroots activism and the voices of hundreds of thousands of people who lifted up his cause. Finally it was the Supreme Court where enough justices decided to step back from the brink of insanity and say no to executing a man who is probably innocent despite Justice Scalia and Thomas’s insistence to the contrary. It’s almost as if there was a realization that the very soul of America is at stake when we have a criminal justice system where innocence is irrelevant even when a man’s life is at stake. It was also an implicit rebuke to the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 that has deleteriously cut back on the rights of death row inmates to challenge their execution despite new evidence of innocence. More than 3,300 people continue to wither on our nation’s death rows, men and women who are almost universally poor, disproportionately African-American and frequently innocent. Since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1973, 135 people in 26 states have been released from death row based on claims of innocence. And there simply is no way to discern how many of the more than 1,100 inmates executed since 1977 were not guilty of the crimes they were accused of committing. The Death Penalty Information Center lists several reasons for the appallingly large number of innocents on death row – eyewitness error, government misconduct by both the police and prosecution and the eliciting of false confessions, often from suspects with mental disabilities, sometimes resulting from police torture. It should come as no surprise to those familiar with the American justice system that a significant percentage of those languishing on death row are, like Troy, are African-American – 41.7 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Black folks make up less than 14 percent of the population.

It is a national disgrace. And it’s a reminder of the cruel consequences of racism.

There is a victory to celebrate in the Troy Davis case. After years of anguish he will finally have an opportunity to convince the courts of his innocence. But other men and women who are equally innocent are being robbed of any chance. Many of them will be executed by the state in our names. Our nation must be better than that. Let’s hope that the Supreme Court decision augurs a growing realization that we have to change.

Benjamin Todd Jealous is president and CEO of the NAACP.

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