Troy Anthony Davis and his sister, Martina Correia, are fighting for their lives. Troy faces death by lethal injection at the hands of the state of Georgia, and Martina has breast cancer. Their parallel battles against insuperable odds will remain an inspiring story—provided they live. Time is running out.
Troy Davis turned 39 years old behind bars on Oct. 9. He was accused of the shooting death of off-duty police officer Mark Allen McPhail in a Burger King parking lot in Savannah, Ga., late one August night in 1989. A homeless man was being beaten over a can of beer. Davis intervened, but fled when the assailant threatened him with a gun. McPhail, working that night as a security guard at the Greyhound bus station, intervened next and was killed. Davis has maintained his innocence throughout.
The state of Georgia presented 15 witnesses in its prosecution of Davis, an African-American. He was found guilty and sentenced to death. Since his conviction, seven of the nine non-police witnesses have recanted their testimony, alleging police coercion in gaining their testimony. One of those who has not recanted is Sylvester Coles, whom others identified as the shooter. Despite these witness recantations, the courts have refused to reopen the case. Davis faces execution by lethal injection, a method several states have moratoriums against. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments on the constitutionality of lethal injection.
Throughout Davis’ ordeal, his sister, Martina Correia, has fought for his release. She spoke before the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles the day before Davis was to be executed last July. The board granted a stay of execution. Correia described the hearing: “Troy’s clemency hearing was the longest clemency hearing in the history of Georgia. And they came back and decided to give Troy an up-to-90-day stay.
“But what took place was, five of the seven witnesses who recanted came forward, including the man who was being attacked that night, and said, ‘I never saw Troy Davis in the parking lot.’ One gentleman said he was a police snitch, and the police had paid him several times to lie on people, and that he just went by the headlines, and the police gave him everything else. Another witness stated he couldn’t read and write. The police officer was giving them pre-typed statements. So nobody knew what was going on, but they were threatened and intimidated. And they came before the Georgia Parole Board, and they said that under oath.”
Congressman John Lewis spoke on behalf of Davis. He told me: “Troy Davis is innocent, and that’s why I testified before the parole board. No person, when you have all these questions, should be put to death.”
While Martina battles for her brother’s life, she is fighting for her own: “I’ve been battling metastatic breast cancer for six and a half years. In 2001, I was told that I had six months to live, and I asked God to just give me the strength to see my son grow up and watch my brother Troy walk free. And I’ve dedicated my life—even though I have not worked in almost seven years due to constant chemotherapy and treatment, I volunteer in my community, and I work and do human-rights work to not only help Troy but to help other people who are facing the same situation. So my battle is more than just for Troy. My battle is for everyone to fight injustice.”
Davis’ case is a textbook example of the racial disparity in the U.S., principally the Deep South, in the imposition of the death penalty. The American Bar Association has singled out Georgia’s racial disparities in capital-offense sentencing, saying it has allowed inadequate defense counsel and been “virtually alone in not providing indigent defendants sentenced to death with counsel for state habeas proceedings.”
The Georgia Supreme Court has agreed to hear Davis’ motion for a new trial, scheduled for Nov. 13. In a new trial, the prosecution could face the bulk of its witnesses recanting their earlier testimonies. This month, on Oct. 13, there will be a major march on Davis’ behalf in Savannah, a city familiar with Martina’s face: Her picture adorns the side of the mammography van that serves indigent women.
Three million women in the U.S. have breast cancer. African-American women have an overall lower survival rate than white women. The coming months will tell whether Martina and Troy can defy the odds.