Why Obama Can’t Afford To Remain Silent On The Troy Davis Case

September 14, 2011  |  

Should President Obama speak out on the planned execution of Troy Anthony Davis ?

The death penalty is one particular controversial issue, which has yet to seriously trouble President Obama. While most former presidents had to face this very issue due to some high-profile case, Obama has virtually escaped scrutiny for his support or opposition of the death penalty.  However, this may all change as earlier this month the state of Georgia has set an execution date for Davis, a death row prisoner with a particularly strong claim that he had been wrongly convicted.

Although President Obama legally does not have the power to pardon or grant Davis clemency because the case was tried in a state court as opposed to a federal court,  does it benefit him to remain silent while a possiblly innocent man, particularly an innocent man of color, is put to death on his watch?

In 1991, Davis was convicted in the 1989 shooting death of Mark Allen MacPhail, an off-duty Savannah police officer, who had been moonlighting as a security guard at a shopping center strip. Despite never having any physical evidence linking him to the killing, Davis’ case was tried and convicted entirely on witnesses and informant testimony. A few years later, an unprecedented six out of the nine witnesses recanted their original testimony in formal affidavits, saying that they had been coerced by police to say that they either saw or heard Davis say he did it.

Some of the witnesses have even implicated another man, Sylvester “Redd” Coles, who ironically had brandished a .38 in the vicinity of the shooting but was never investigated by the police.  Instead Coles would become the prosecutor’s star witness in the case.

Davis’ execution has been postponed three times already to allow for further consideration of evidence and appeals have reached as far as the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2008, as a result of multiple appeals, the Georgia Supreme Court temporarily stopped Davis’ execution, and in 2009 the federal district court was ordered to take another look at the case. However an appeals court failed to grant a new trial because although the appeals  judge at the time didn’t believe the state’s case against Davis was iron clad, he still didn’t believe that the witnesses’ recantations were enough to grant Davis a new trial.

The courts, which are more concerned over procedural rights than justice, haven’t deterred the thousands around the globe, who are demanding Davis receive not only a stay of execution but also a new trial.  Rallies have been held and are still planned globally to demand justice for Troy Davis. Earlier this week more than 3,000 religious leaders from all 50 states had signed a letter urging the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to examine “developments that cast serious doubt on Davis’ guilt.” High-profile activist, politicians and people of faith have used their platform to draw attention to Davis’ case, including appeals from Congressman John Lewis, Rev. Al Sharpton, Angela Davis, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Pope Benedict XVI and former President Jimmy Carter.

Organizations such as NAACP, Color of Change, Amnesty International, and International Action Center, are all collecting signatures on petitions, which will be delivered to both the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles as well as President Obama.

And what are the Obama Administration’s thoughts on the case? Well the Administration has virtually remained silent, which could have serious implications, especially within in the black community, who have disproportionately been at the mercy of the justice system at several points along the gamut.

When Obama first ran for the Illinois state Senate in 1996, he said in a campaign questionnaire that he opposed capital punishment and as a state lawmaker voted against expanding it for crimes arising from gang activity. He was also the driving force behind a 2003 capital punishment reform bill that required interrogations be videotaped in capital murder cases.

However, Obama the presidential candidate took a somewhat hardened stance on the death penalty, saying that he supported the death penalty in some “hideous” cases but also said that the system of investigating and prosecuting capital crimes was so flawed and that the nation should declare a moratorium on executions until it could be fixed. And recently, President Barack Obama has thrown his support behind an Illinois’ bill, which seeks to abolish the death penalty in that state alltogether. Needless to say, his position on the death penalty as a whole seems to favor those who are calling for a stay of execution in the Davis case. So why has he been so detached from the case?

Unfortunately for supporters of Davis, Obama is in his second bid for president, which means that any call for justice for an African American would trigger a racial backlash from some voters, particularly those of the Fox-News, fear-mongering persuasion.  And given the tough and divisive first term he has had, the chances that President Obama will stick his neck out for a fellow minority is close to zero. Like it or not, this is a cold reminder of how little effect a Black man in the White House has had on ending or even addressing the very real applications of systemic racism and injustices, which is manifested on a daily basis in society at large.

On the other hand, lending his voice in the form of an appeal to Georgia’s governor as well as the board of pardons and paroles could suggest to voters, particularly his core base, that he cares about justice over popularity.  And it”s not that there isn’t precedence: in 1994, Humberto Leal Garcia Jr., a Mexican national, was convicted of rape and murder and sentenced to death in Texas. While very few had ever contested his guilt in the rape/murder case, there were some, including a U.N.-backed tribunal court, who voiced concerns over the handling of his case, particularly that Leal hadn’t been told that he could have received the legal help of the Mexican Consulate.

Although Leal was tried and convicted in state court, President Obama still made a courageous yet unsuccessful appeal for Leal’s life to both Governor Perry and the Supreme Court, arguing it could do “irreparable harm” to U.S. interests abroad. This was done without consideration for political polarization, which might have arisen for speaking up on behalf of an undocumented immigrant.

And yet it is regrettable that the Obama Administration has yet to issue a statement regarding Davis, who had been loudly proclaiming his innocence since prior to the conviction. Even if he is powerless to pardon Davis or his appeals for clemency are ignored, politically speaking, it would be a mistake for President Obama to simple sit quietly on the sidelines again, much like he was on the Sean Bell and Oscar Grant incidents, while a grave injustice is scheduled to be served later this month.

Charing Ball is the author of the blog People, Places & Things.

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