In the early hours of August 19, 1989, a fight broke out in the parking lot of a Burger King in Savannah, Georgia. Amongst the crowd of people present was Troy Davis, a 20 year old black man. Officer Mark MacPhail, a police officer moonlighting as a security guard at an adjacent bus station, responded to a call for help from Larry Young, a homeless man who had been pistol-whipped in the head during the course of the argument. As MacPhail rushed to Young’s aid, he was shot, once in the heart, and once in the face. He hadn’t even had time to pull out his own weapon. He died at the scene, murdered by the same man who had attacked Young. That man was not Troy Davis.
The crime became instant media fodder in Chatham County, Georgia; the uproar following a black man purportedly killing a white police officer meant that the coverage effectively eliminated the possibility of an impartial jury from the start. By all accounts, Sylvester “Redd” Coles had initiated the conflict with Young that night. Several witnesses indicated that a man wearing a white shirt had first attacked Young, and then shot MacPhail. Coles himself admitted at trial that had been fighting with Young. Further, he admitted to owning had a .38 caliber revolver, the exact type of weapon used to murder MacPhail. Police never attempted to search for the murder weapon, nor did Coles ever produce the gun, claiming that he had lost it. So: no found murder weapon, no DNA evidence, no other physical evidence implicating Davis as the perpetrator. His conviction rested entirely on the testimony of several witnesses who said that they had seen Davis shoot MacPhail. One of those witnesses was Coles.
The testimony of so many eyewitnesses seemed incredibly damning at trial. However, it is critical to note how and why the eyewitnesses first came to identify Davis as the perpetrator. In a shockingly inept and misleading investigation, the Savannah Police gathered four of the first eyewitnesses, a week after the crime, to re-enact their version of the murder at the crime scene. Doing so contaminated any valid memories that the witnesses had of that night, turning four individual perceptions into a fabricated group one. By the time the police got around to conducting a photographic lineup, Davis’ mugshot had been splashed across newspapers and evening broadcasts across the state, labeling him as the prime suspect. His image was included in a photographic lineup with five other men, yet none of the other “suspects” included had been anywhere near the scene of the crime, effectively leaving no choice but to select Davis. Not only was Coles left out of the lineup, he was treated as an innocent bystander and key witness.
Despite Davis maintaining his innocence from the beginning, it took a jury just two short hours to convict him of first degree murder. Several jurors inquired as to whether or not life without parole was a possibility, and they were told unequivocally that it was not. Seven hours later, they granted the prosecution what it had been gunning for throughout the trial: death by lethal injection.
In the decades since his 1991 trial, countless studies have shown how incredibly unreliable eyewitness identifications are, and how easily manipulated memory can be. In the 311 DNA exonerations that have occurred since 1989, eyewitness misidentifications account for nearly 75 percent of the convictions. The human mind does not function like a video camera. We aren’t ever capable of recording and remembering events exactly as we saw them, nor is our ability to recall past events terribly accurate. Decades of social science research have taught us that eyewitness testimony should be treated like any other evidence at a crime scene: preserved very carefully and protected from contamination. It is simply too easy to mold and distort a memory.
In the years following the trial, seven of the nine original eyewitnesses recanted their testimony against Davis; several of them stated that they had identified him because of police threats against them. Of the two who did not recant, one is the likely perpetrator, Coles. (It should be noted, also, that several people have since come forward to tell law enforcement that Coles had confessed to the murder.) Davis endured a hellish roller coaster of appeals, execution dates that came and went (at times coming perilously close), and punting of his case from court to court. On the last day of his life, the Supreme Court accepted an 11th hour review of his case, staying his execution to deliberate four hours past the time that he was scheduled to die. Ultimately, they found no error, and affirmed the conviction. He was killed by the State of Georgia at 11:08 PM on September 21st, a few weeks shy of his 43rd birthday.
As human beings, we innately want things to make sense. Unfortunately, that impulse can lead us to draw incorrect conclusions and then stick to them with far too much conviction. There were two major psychological factors at play in Davis’ wrongful conviction: confirmation biases and hindsight biases. The former is the tendency to favorably interpret any information that seems to corroborate a hypothesis or a pre-existing belief. (See: tunnel vision). The latter, colloquially known as the “knew-it-all-along-effect,” describes our inclination to view past events as almost inevitable, ascribing a definite causal chain of events and a likelihood of getting it right that simply isn’t there.
Bias is not a fault; it’s a natural component of how our brains function. Armed with that knowledge, it’s absolutely critical to address and counter the (numerous) cognitive biases that will inevitably be at play in the criminal justice system. Even a very slight suspicion of an individual’s guilt can lead to erroneously interpreted evidence, which then corroborates that initial suspicion, strengthening an incorrect hypothesis quickly and harmfully.
It’s easy to feel discouraged by the slow pace of justice in this country; it’s also easy to feel totally overwhelmed by the seemingly insurmountable web of factors that feed injustices. So today, almost two years after Davis’ death, I’d like to feel some small sliver of optimism. I’d like to focus on promoting increased transparency at each level of the criminal justice system, relying on years of research that indicates that people submit to their biases less often when they are aware that they are being observed. I’d like to focus on forgiveness for human error and to stop labeling actors as unethical or irresponsible. I’d like to focus on systemic and institutional reform that makes acknowledging mistakes a productive and necessary step of the process, not a shameful, veiled practice that comes far too late.
For Troy Davis, it is too late. Tomorrow, at 11:08 PM, it will be exactly two years since he spoke these last words, strapped to a gurney in a fluorescently lit death chamber, prepared to die for a crime he did not commit:
Well, first of all I’d like to address the MacPhail family. I’d like to let you all know that despite the situation — I know all of you still are convinced that I’m the person that killed your father, your son and your brother, but I am innocent. The incidents that happened that night was not my fault. I did not have a gun that night. I did not shoot your family member. But I am so sorry for your loss. I really am – sincerely. All that I can ask is that each of you look deeper into this case, so that you really will finally see the truth. I ask to my family and friends that you all continue to pray, that you all continue to forgive. Continue to fight this fight. For those about to take my life, may God have mercy on all of your souls. God bless you all.