Witnesses Now Say They Lied In 1991 Trial That Sent Troy Davis to Death Row

Testimony Came On First Day of Historic Hearing to Decide if Troy Davis Killed Cop in 1991


June 24, 2010—

A man who dodged his date with the executioner three times, once by a mere 90 minutes, returns to a Savannah, Ga., courtroom today where so far four witnesses have recanted testimony that put him on death row 19 years ago.

Troy Anthony Davis, now 40, was convicted in 1991 of murdering Savannah police officer Mark MacPhail.

According to court documents, the conviction was based on the testimony of nine witnesses who identified Davis as the man who shot MacPhail in 1989. There was no physical evidence introduced in the trial and the murder weapon was never found.

Now, 19 years later, most of those witnesses are recanting their testimony, including four who appeared in court Wednesday.

"I was so scared I told them anything they wanted to hear," Jeffrey Sapp, a witness who fingered Davis as the shooter in the 1991 trail, said Wednesday in released testimony.

Sapp said in court Wednesday the police told him, "Just say Troy told you. Just say Troy told you." Other witnesses told similar stories Wednesday, as Davis fights for his life after sitting on death row for close to 20 years.

Kevin McQueen had testified in 1991 that Davis admitted killing MacPhail, yet now McQueen says there is simply "no truth" to his original testimony.

"He never told me nothing like this. ... He never confessed to shooting anybody to me," McQueen testified Wednesday.

Last year the Supreme Court, for the first time in 50 years, granted a writ of habeas corpus for a case filed directly to its docket rather than hearing an appeal from a lower court ruling.

Judge Can Rule Troy Davis Innocent, Guilty, or Grant New Trial

In its ruling, the Supreme Court wrote that a hearing should be convened to hear testimony to determine whether or not Davis' claims "clearly establish" his innocence.

The hearing is being presided over by U.S. District Court Judge William T. Moore Jr., who could declare Davis innocent, affirm his guilt, or order a new trial.

The prosecution, which maintains that they convicted the right man, will present its case today. The hearing could conclude today, although it will be months before Moore renders a decision.

The prosecution argued in 1991 that Davis was involved in an argument with several men near a Savannah bus station, and witnesses testified that Davis struck a man on the head with a handgun before fleeing the scene with another man, Sylvester Coles.

MacPhail, off-duty at the time, was working security at the bus station and witnessed the incident before giving chase to Coles and Davis. During the pursuit Davis allegedly shot MacPhail, and as MacPhail, 27, lay wounded on the ground Davis "stood over him, smiled and fired the final shot," court documents say.

During the trial, Davis maintained it was Coles who shot and killed MacPhail.

Coles, however, went to the police shortly after the shooting and according to court records implicated Davis as the shooter, while Davis fled the Savannah area and went to Atlanta.

Coles went on to be one of the prosecution's witnesses against Davis in the trial. Coles and one other man, Steve Sanders are the only two people who have not recanted testimony against Davis. Sanders' testimony identified Davis as the shooter, despite telling police originally he "would not recognize the shooter," court documents say.

Davis' defense argued during his trial that the Savannah police were given an immediate suspect in Davis, by Coles, and only pursued that angle, in part the defense argued because the police were motivated by "anger" with the death of an officer to have a quick trial.

In the years that followed, seven of those nine witnesses have recanted their testimony and some have allegedly claimed they were coerced by police to finger Davis as the shooter. Some even said in sworn affidavits that it was in fact Coles who shot MacPhail.

Witnesses Who Sent Troy Davis to Death Row Now Testify They Lied

"I told them what they wanted to hear," Darrell Collins said in recanting his originaly testimony Wednesday.

Collins was 16 at the time of the shooting, and according to court documents he was with Davis the night of the shooting. Collins told the court Wednesday that he was threatened by investigators to identify Davis as the shooter.

A similar story was told by Dorothy Farrel in 2000 affidavit. During the 1991 trial, Farrel told the court that she was "real sure" it was Davis she saw shoot the police officer.

In the sworn affidavit recanting her testimony, Farrel said, "From the way the officer was talking, he gave me the impression that I should say that Troy Davis was the one who shot the officer like the other witness [sic] had and I felt like I was just following the rest of the witnesses. I also felt like I had to cooperate with the officer because of my being on parole and I told the detective that Troy Davis was the shooter, even though the truth was that I didn't see who shot the officer."

Others who testified Wednesday included Charles Hargrove and Benjamin Gordon.

Hargrove told the court that Coles admitted to him that he let Davis take the fall for the crime, but Hargrove said he did not come forward out of fear due to outstanding arrest warrants.

Gordon said he witnessed Coles pull the trigger, but did not come forward because Coles was married to his cousin. However the prosecution cast doubt on their testimony and according to court transcripts their testimony was regarded as "hearsay" by the judge.

Davis' advocates realize that he still faces an uphill battle to prove he is not a cop killer.

"The bar has been set high. Troy Davis was asked to prove his innocence. Usually it's innocent untill proven guilty," Wendy Gozan Brown, of Amnesty International told ABC News.

Laura Moye, director of Amensty International's Troy Davis Campaign, said Wednesday's testimony was a strong first day in the hearing.

Troy Davis' Last Chance to Get Off Death Row

"People admitted in open court, before a judge, that they lied. It was very compelling and deep doubts in the case were illuminated," Moye told ABC News.

Amnesty International, along with the NAACP, has been leading a drive for the last five years to get the courts to look at the recanted testimony. While they have not taken a position on whether or not they believe Davis is innocent, Moye contends that the main issue is that if a man is to be put to death for a crime, a system should be in place so that it is absolute they comitted that crime.

"We think the Troy Davis case represents so much of what is wrong," Moye said.

"We think that Troy has a very strong case of innocence, and there should never be any doubt," she said.

According to Moye, Davis was calm and quiet in court today.

"He looked quiet, thoughtful," she said.

This will most likely be Davis' last chance at proving his innocence. For now, his execution is stayed. Yet, as Davis wrote in his 2009 appeal to the Supreme Court, his alleged innocence and nearly two decades in jail are nothing compared to the prospect of having to say goodbye to his family for a fourth time.

"I have faced execution and the torment of saying goodbye to my family three times in the last two years and I may experience that trauma yet again; I would not wish this on my worst enemy and to know I am innocent only compounds the injustice I am facing," Davis said.