By Laura Kagel, Georgia Death Penalty Abolition Coordinator for Amnesty International USA
Savannah was tranquil and warm in the early hours when people started lining up to get passes for the evidentiary hearing in the Troy Davis case. The police seemed prepared for some major disruptions, but a courteous atmosphere prevailed everywhere.
Across from the courthouse Amnesty International was a presence, along with the NAACP, under the dense foliage of Wright Square. Inside the pleasantly air-conditioned courtroom the public seemed full of anticipation and the sight of box after box of court documents entering the chamber was a sudden visual reminder of the gravity of the event. Just before the proceedings began, Troy entered the courtroom in the company of corrections department employees. He looked straight ahead and then took a seat at the end of the row of defense lawyers and facing the witness stand. His legal team began calling witnesses straight off, because the judge had requested that they skip opening arguments.
The testimony of the witnesses called by the defense team really underscored the fragility of the state’s case against Troy Davis. It was amazing to hear their stories. Over the course of the morning, the witnesses affirmed that their testimony implicating Davis was built on lies and often explained their recantations in moving ways, recounting the pressure they felt to point the finger at Troy.
Antoine Williams, who said he could not read the statement he allegedly made to the police because he can’t read, talked about being haunted with nightmares about it. Kevin McQueen testified that he implicated Troy because he was mad at him. When asked what he hoped to gain by his testimony today, he stated simply, “peace of mind.” When pressed about his earlier – now recanted – testimony, McQueen said adamantly, “The man did not tell me he shot anyone. Period.”
Anthony Hargrove told the full courtroom that he wrote to Troy in 2000 of his own volition to tell him he had heard Sylvester Coles confess to killing Officer Mark MacPhail. He sounded regretful when he said that because of warrants out on him and concern for his own “self-preservation” he hadn’t come forward. Benjamin Gordon stunned the courtroom with an eyewitness account of the murder of Officer MacPhail by Sylvester Coles and told how he tried to convince Coles to “straighten it up,” because someone was sitting on death row for the crime. It was wrenching to see witness after witness facing Troy Davis explaining untruths and omissions that forever altered his life.
On the second day of the hearing, the state will continue to press its case after attacking the credibility of the recanting witnesses and questioning police officers about their investigation tactics today. A witness for the defense who was unable to testify today may be called back. I’ll report back with more information after the hearing closes.
We’ll continue to keep you posted!
Laura Kagel is the State Death Penalty Abolition Coordinator for Georgia for Amnesty International USA. She is currently in Savannah to observe Troy Davis’ evidentiary hearing.