Today’s Courier Herald Column:
Mark MacPhail was the kind of guy most would like to be. A young father of a two year old daughter and seven week old son, the former Army Ranger was working two jobs to support his wife and family. A member of the Savannah police force, MacPhail was working his other job as a security guard in a bus station when he responded to a cry for help outside. That August day in 1989 was Mark MacPhail’s last, as a gunman shot him once under his protective vest, and again as he fell.
Mark MacPhail’s name is not on the news much these days, as it is now 22 years since his murder. The case is more commonly now called the “Troy Davis case”, as it is Davis, convicted of MacPhail’s murder, who sits on Georgia’s death row. Davis’ current execution date is set for next week, on September 21st.
The plight of Davis has garnered national attention, with many disparate groups painting him as a victim. His attorneys and death penalty opponents have waged a decades-long media campaign to assert that Davis is innocent, in jail because of mistaken identity. Claims have been made of witnesses changing stories and jurors having second thoughts. The reality is that most of the claims of witnesses recanting are from witnesses who acknowledged that they never read the police prepared sworn statements which they signed, despite the fact that they also gave testimony to the material in the statements saying the information was true and correct.
Davis’ pending execution has drawn the attention of disparate leaders such as former President Jimmy Carter and former Republican Congressman and Libertarian Presidential Nominee Bob Barr. National media is beginning a drumbeat that Georgia is about to execute an innocent man.
Troy Davis was convicted by a jury of his peers. He is a murderer. He killed a police officer. In the eyes of the law, these have now been determined as fact.
The issue of new and/or recanted testimonies has been appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court. It should be noted when the Georgia Supreme Court last heard Davis’ appeal in 2008, the court had not yet begun its current slight shift toward conservatism.
Allowing witnesses to change testimony or jurors to admit to second thoughts twenty years after trial is not a precedent which our justice system needs to set. Jurors on death penalty trials already understand the gravity of the vote for which they cast, and know it is something they will have to live with for the rest of their lives. Knowing that they will be pursued for decades by defense attorneys and those who wish to use them to attempt to end the death penalty is not part of the jury duty bargain, nor should it be allowed to become one.
Likewise, witnesses are cross examined during trial by the defense. It is standard operating procedure to claim that the few who ever make it to a death sentence received a sub-standard defense, thus essentially asking the courts for a do-over. The trial procedures have been reviewed by both the Georgia and U.S. Supreme Courts, with each allowing his trial and verdict to stand.
It is natural, and very human, to feel compassion for Troy Davis. It is noble to pursue the ideal that it is better that a guilty man go free than an innocent man be put to death. If there is to be a meaningful concept of justice, however, there must also be a balance between the prosecution and the defense. In our system, every tie goes to the defense, whereas a death penalty verdict must be unanimous.
This case, scheduled to end Wednesday night, is not the Troy Davis case. It is the Mark MacPhail case. It is about justice for him, his wife, and two children who have little to no memories of a man who served his country and his city with distinction. It is also about jurors who sat in judgment and voted that a man should die because of his actions to take the life of Mark MacPhail, and those who will sit on future juries forced to make similar difficult decisions.
There should be no celebration next Wednesday should this case finally be closed with the execution of Troy Davis. His death will not bring Mark back. It will not provide Mark MacPhail Jr with memories of a childhood that were stolen from him. It will, however, provide some degree of closure, and a very belated sense of Justice.