May 21, 2013
Innocent and Executed
Posted on Jun 29, 2011
Peter Scheer: Welcome to Truthdig Radio. Narda Zacchino is joined by Mike Farrell, an activist and one of the nation’s leading voices against the death penalty and an actor also who is best known on his work on M*A*S*H.
Narda Zacchino: Hi, Mike, I’m happy that you’re joining us today to talk about a case that I think, you know, we are heading into what could be one of the most heinous miscarriages of justice, and that is the case of Troy Anthony Davis. I wonder if you could summarize his situation for our listeners.
Mike Farrell: The situation is that Troy was part of a group of people outside I think a bar, I’m not sure, outside some establishment, in the late ’80s. And there was a scuffle and an argument, and a man tried to intervene, and he was, as I understand it, an off-duty police officer. At any rate the police officer was killed and Troy Davis was charged with a crime, a number of people testified against him, and he was convicted and sentenced to death. The evidence against him was only based on the testimony of where this is, and subsequently, forgive me if I’m getting the number wrong, but I think there were nine witnesses that testified, seven of whom have subsequently recanted their testimony, in some cases saying the police have pressured them to name him as the perpetrator, saying that they were frightened by threats and that they didn’t see what they said they saw. And finally the case has been appealed a number of times, but finally the U.S. Supreme Court held that the danger in this case of executing an innocent man based on the recantations of testimony by the majority of the witnesses and most recently it’s been through a number of permutations of appeals through the states and the federal system since he was convicted in 1991. But finally the Supreme Court said there was danger in executing an innocent man and there should be an evidentiary hearing. The hearing was held in Georgia in front of Judge Moore, who I can’t say if he was the original trial judge or not, but he was certainly not sympathetic, and there was testimony before this judge by a significant number of the people who had recanted and explained why they had testified the way they did saying they were pressured and they were frightened and they really didn’t see what they said they saw but were told to testify that way. And a couple of them named one of the other people who was a witness, who testified against Troy Davis, as in fact the perpetrator.
Narda Zacchino: That’s true and that person that they implicated, his name is Sylvester “Red” Coles, he was actually the person who went to the police the day after the shooting of the off-duty police officer, and he told the police that Troy Davis was the shooter. And he is, of course, one of the witnesses who has not recanted his testimony.
Narda Zacchino: Right. They did say that they tried to subpoena him the day before the trial and the judge said, well, you’ve waited to long, it’s too late.
Mike Farrell: Yes, they did. It’s a terrible situation, I met Troy’s sister when I was in Atlanta a year or two ago and she has been a stalwart supporter of his, and quite an extraordinary young women who is terrifically articulate about the case and has been a champion of Troy’s that you can imagine for many years. But it is a hideous miscarriage of justice and since Judge Moore throughout this evidentiary hearing, or refused to overturn the verdict, it went back to Supreme Court, which without explaining why, just refused to hear it. So we are now faced with the possibility that Troy Davis will be executed without this issue of innocence or guilt fully resolved. And the last thing I heard is they are now going to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to ask them to commute his sentence.
Narda Zacchino: Right, that seems to be the only recourse. I just want to say the recanting by these witnesses was so I thought compelling. One woman who had testified against him stated in an affidavit that she felt under pressure from the police to identify Davis as the shooter because she had been on parole for a shoplifting conviction, and she told the detective that Troy Davis was the shooter even though it wasn’t the truth, and she said “I didn’t know who shot the officer.” Another witness who testified against him wrote an affidavit in 2002 that the police had scared him into falsely testifying by threatening to charge him as an accessory to the crime, and he said “I didn’t see troy to do anything to that man.” And by the way this witness was only 16. They interrogated him for many, many, many hours without his parents there and of course threatened to charge him as an accessory. Another three other witness testified that their earlier testimony had been coerced by strong-arm police tactics. This seems to be a pattern here that the police were really aggressive with these witnesses. As you mentioned three witnesses who signed affidavits stating that “Red” Coles had confessed to the murder to them, so this is not just a case of a man being wrongly put to death, but the person who actually committed the murder being out there, free to roam around. And the judge as you said, when he had said there is no danger of miscarriage of justice, declining the claim on behalf of Troy Davis. You know, as you mentioned, maybe you can talk about the worldwide appeal that has been made in the case of Troy Davis starting with Amnesty International.
Mike Farrell: Significantly, Amnesty International is involved although they are not taking a position on whether he is guilty or innocent. They’ve involved themselves on the basis of the unfairness of the trial and the unfairness of the process that has lead him even closer now to execution. This sort of situation unfortunately is not unique to this case. So many instances where police misconduct has resulted in the wrong person being convicted or singled out and then convicted. And as you’ve indicated in every one of those cases, if the wrong person is convicted and in some cases executed, then of course the perpetrator is free to roam the world and do her or his damage wherever. The extraordinary I think outcry in the Troy Davis case, Jesse Jackson and I spoke last week, he went down to see Troy, the extraordinary outcry in this case is a direct result of two things. One is this extraordinary devotion on the part of his sister, but second is the growing awareness of the people in this country and around the world of the inefficiency, ineffectiveness and unfairness of the American capital punishment system.
Narda Zacchino: Absolutely, and in fact Troy has had three execution dates. One, I think it was he got a stay with something like two hours before he was to be executed, and the last stay of execution came when his mother died in April and now a new date is to be set. But, you know, your organization Death Penalty Focus does tremendous work, and I think it’s significant to note that since Troy has been on death row more than 90 prisoners have been released from death rows across the country on grounds of innocence, and each of these 90 had been found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt at trial. So you probably know these statistics more than anybody, and more than 130 death row inmates have been exonerated since 1973.
Mike Farrell: This is what we call the modern era since the death penalty was reinstated by the Supreme Court in ’76, and reinstated in various states subsequent to that time. There have been 139 people who have been exonerated free from death row after having been, as you say, tried and convicted and sentenced to death beyond a reasonable doubt and all that nonsense. But what we don’t know is how many of those people who were not exonerated. How many of those people did not get examination of this kind?
Narda Zacchino: Well, isn’t one of the problems that the defense … I mean a lot of this is public defender defense and they don’t have the funds to do the kind of legal work that is really necessary to probe deeply.
Mike Farrell: Traditionally public defenders across the country, many of whom do heroic work, are overwhelmed to the point of inability simply to function property. But in too many cases in various states there are the killing states, there are no public defender systems and quite often it comes down to a quote upon your attorney who really has no expertise in the area of capital crime or capital defense. So we find … infamously the case in Texas for example, drunken attorneys, drug-abusing attorneys, sleeping attorneys, who are theoretically providing a defense for somebody who ends up in fact convicted and sentenced to death. So we have a system that is simply a fabrication. There’s nothing to do with justice; it really has to do with political cowardice because anybody who looks very seriously at this system knows it’s rife with racism and classism, only poor people go to death row. And also know from what we’ve talked about that innocent people are captured in this system all the time. There’s a terrible case going on in Texas today of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed for an arson murder that took his three children. On the basis of false science, if you could call it science, experts now have looked at the evidence that convicted Mr. Willingham and resulted in his death and determined that there was no sign of arson. It was, as he had always claimed, an accidental fire and one in which he tried heroically to save his children. But Gov. [Rick] Perry today who was responsible for his execution is doing everything he can to see to it that no successful analysis of that case and the evidence in it gains a light of day because he doesn’t want to have to look at the fact that he executed an innocent man.
Narda Zacchino: Well, I know that was a very tragic … I know there were so many efforts to save his life, and unsuccessfully obviously.
Mike Farrell: And interestingly there was a case subsequent to the Willingham case where a man was tried, convicted, sentenced to death and then exonerated on the basis of the very kind of evidence that resulted in Willingham’s death. But the connection was never able to be made because of the way the system works.
Narda Zacchino: You brought up the racial imbalance in people who are sentenced to death, and I know there was a 2001 study I believe from the University of North Carolina, which found that a defendant whose victim was white was 3.5 times as likely to receive the death penalty in North Carolina than if the victim were nonwhite. And in California there was a study not long ago that found the defendant of a white victim three times as likely to be penalized by death.
Mike Farrell: That’s the case across the board. The killing of a white person is far more likely to result in the death penalty then will be the killing of a person of color.
Narda Zacchino: Well, Mike, let me ask you about the public sentiment because you mentioned, I think there seems to be a growing sense that there’s something wrong with the system. Three states recently have abolished the death penalty; can you talk about that for a sec?
Mike Farrell: Sure, actually it’s four. New York did it judicially, But since that time New Jersey, New Mexico and just a couple of months ago Illinois have done away with the death penalty. And the interesting thing, the sadly interesting thing, is that the racism of the system has been known for a long time to anybody who looks, the classism of the system has been known for a long time to anybody who looks. The fact that innocent people are entrapped in the system has been known for a long time. What has also been known for a long time but hasn’t got the attention of the people is the cost. It costs three times as much to go through the process and kill someone as it would to give that person life in prison without possibility of parole. To keep that person in the system fed and housed for an average of 40 years. Today as a result of the economic crunch in the country, the issue of cost is raising people’s attention and it has been one of the factors in all three of the abolition cases in New Jersey, New Mexico and Illinois. And I just set a meeting in Gov. [Gray] Davis’ office, (laughs) sorry, Gov. [Jerry] Brown, a little slip of the mind there, Gov. Brown’s office with his number one and explained to him that while we have our system here is imposed by initiatives so the governor does not have the authority, nor does the legislature to simply end capital punishment but what the governor does have is the authority that Gov. Ryan in Illinois used just before he left office, which is to commute everybody on death row, all 714 people on all our death row to life in prison without possibility of parole and in so doing saving $100,000 per year for each of those 714 people and if you add that up, that makes a lot of savings that could be put to use in funding some of the programs they’re having to cut in terms of our budget.
Narda Zacchino: Well, maybe some people who aren’t moved by the human or morality aspect of it could be moved by that. Mike, we’re going to have to wrap it up, but I wanted to just ask you, first of all thank you so much for being on the show, I wanted to ask you what couple people do to help Troy Davis, if anything? Are there websites?
Mike Farrell: Yes, all they have to do is google the name Troy Davis and there’s a website they can go to that will give them all the information they would want about the case. But more than that, contacting the governor for whatever good that will do, pressing the legislature of Georgia, pressing the governor of Georgia and pressing, in particular, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles. Let them know that the people of the world are looking at this case and that Georgia is going to further besmirch itself, and just recently they killed a man down there by using this new single drug pentobarbital, and it was evidently an excruciatingly difficult execution, and it will cause more calamity to fall on Georgia and other states that continue to try and find ways to execute people.
Narda Zacchino: Thank you again for your efforts and thanks for being with us.
Mike Farrell: You bet, nice to talk to you.
Peter Scheer: That’s it for this week. Join us next Wednesday at 2 p.m. at KPFK or anytime online at Truthdig.com, where you can hear an extended interview on fascism in Argentina and a Web exclusive on the California budget. Thanks to our guests Larry Gross, Mike Farrell and Marguerite Feitlowitz. Thanks also to our board op Jee; engineer Stan Misraje and Alan Minsky.
For Robert Scheer, Kasia Anderson, Narda Zacchino and the Scheer brothers, thanks for listening.
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