In a federal courtroom in Savannah, Georgia today, a parade of eye-witnesses admitted to perjury. At the 1991 trial of Troy Davis, witnesses described seeing him shoot police officer Mark Allen MacPhail. Others testified that Davis had confessed to the killing.
Why would so many people lie about what they saw and heard back in 1989?
Intimidation. Recanting witnesses claim that they were threatened and bribed by investigators desperate to bring a cop-killer to justice.
Prosecutors claim the recantors had criminal records, some of them extensive. But that’s just the point. Ex-offenders are infinitely vulnerable to prosecutorial manipulation. A childhood friend of Mr. Davis says he testified at trial because he was a street hustler and was afraid the police would hang a drug charge on him.
If you have been reading our reports from the trial of Curtis Flowers you will see the similarities. There have been plenty of witness recantations in the Flowers case and they have moved in both directions. Two jailhouse snitches testified in trial one that Curtis had admitted killing four people in a Winona, Mississippi furniture store. They later recanted. Roy Harris initially backed up Clemmie Flemming’s story about seeing Curtis flee the scene, but later accused Fleming of inventing the story.
And then there’s Odell Hallmon, the man who testified at trial two that he and his sister Patricia fed investigators a bogus story in hopes of getting a $30,000 reward. Then Odell got out of jail. After a week of harassment from an outraged family, Odell told DA Doug Evans that (a) his testimony in trial 2 was a lie and (2) Curtis Flowers had confessed to the killings.
Recanting witnesses must be evaluated with great caution. A man who lies once will lie again. I always wonder what compromised witnesses would say if they were free of external influence. Would a single one of the eye witnesses who say they saw Curtis Flowers on the east side of Winona’s Highway 51 stick to their guns if they had no reason to fear the wrath of a vengeful prosecutor?
It’s hard to say, but I suspect the testimony of these witnesses would be remarkably different if they weren’t testifying under duress.
The Troy Davis hearing is just getting underway. We will try to keep you posted.
By Bill Rankin
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
SAVANNAH — Four witnesses who testified against Troy Anthony Davis at his 1991 trial said Wednesday that none of their damaging testimony against him was true.
The witnesses, whose prior testimony helped put Davis on death row for the killing of off-duty Savannah Police Officer Mark Allen MacPhail, said they were pressured by authorities to point the finger at Davis.
At the 1991 trial, Antoine Williams testified he saw Davis shoot and kill MacPhail late one summer night in 1989 in a Burger King parking lot. But Wednesday, Williams said he was too scared to see who actually fired the weapon.
“I was in my car, ducking and peeking,” Williams, the first witness called by Davis’ lawyers, said. He added that he did not get a good look at the shooting because his car’s windows had three layers of limousine tint on them.
Williams said he testified against Davis at trial because prosecutors told him to identify Davis as the shooter. “I was scared,” he testified.
The testimony came on the first day of an extraordinary hearing ordered last August by the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court instructed a judge to convene a hearing, hear testimony and determine whether Davis’ new claims “clearly establish” his innocence. The hearing is being presided over by U.S. District Court Judge William T. Moore Jr., an appointee of President Bill Clinton.
Another witness, Kevin McQueen, testified at trial that Davis told him he shot and killed MacPhail. On Wednesday, he said that never happened.
“There’s no truth to it,” McQueen said. “He never told me nothing like this. … He never confessed to shooting anybody to me.”
When asked by one of Davis’ lawyers, Philip Horton, if he had anything to gain by testifying now in Savannah, McQueen replied, “Peace of mind.”
Jeffrey Sapp, another witness who testified at trial that Davis told him he shot and killed MacPhail, also said that never happened.
Sapp, a childhood friend of Davis’, said irate police told him what to say. He also said that, at the time, he was a “hustler” dealing drugs and feared he would be charged if he did not go along.
“I was so scared I told them anything they wanted to hear,” Sapp said. He added that police told him, “Just say Troy told you. Just say Troy told you.”
Darrell Collins, who was at the scene of the shooting with Davis the night of MacPhail’s murder, also said most of his trial testimony against Davis was untrue.
State attorneys Beth Attaway Burton and Susan Boleyn challenged the new testimony of each witness in cross-examination. They pointed out inconsistencies in their various statements and got McQueen, Sapp and Collins to acknowledge they had prior convictions.
The state attorney general’s office will call a number of police and prosecution witnesses at the close of testimony from witnesses called by Davis’ legal team.
Savannah prosecutors and state attorneys have countered that Davis is a cop killer and that there was more than enough evidence to prove he killed MacPhail beyond a reasonable doubt. State attorneys also note that five separate courts and Georgia’s parole board have rejected Davis’ claims.
But lawyers for Davis, whose execution has been postponed three times, contend that a number of key prosecution witnesses who testified they saw Davis shoot and kill MacPhail have recanted their trial testimony. Others who testified Davis told them he killed MacPhail have also backed off that trial testimony, the witnesses have said in sworn affidavits.
Davis, dressed in a white prison outfit with a blue collar, sat back in his chair at the defense table throughout much of the testimony, sometimes taking notes or reading through court documents. Members of Davis’ family sat on one side of the packed courtroom and members of MacPhail’s family sat on the other side.
Spectators and members of the news media hoping to get one of the 90 available seats for the public began forming a line outside the federal courthouse before 6 a.m. Davis arrived shortly before 7 a.m. accompanied by an armed escort of numerous Chatham County police officers.