Confronting a capital conundrum
Larry Chisolm, the first black district attorney in Chatham County, Ga., was sitting in his modern, sixth-floor office, tolerating an interview but declining to speak about the problem that he may have to address soon -- the one that could come to define and complicate the rest of his young political career.
It is a problem he inherited. The problem of death row inmate Troy Davis.
Behind Chisolm, a window framed the western flank of this old Southern city, the county seat, offering a clear view of the bus station parking lot where Davis, a black man, allegedly killed an off-duty white police officer in 1989.
In recent years, recantations from key witnesses -- and Davis’ inability to win a new trial -- have made the case an international cause celebre, sparking European street demonstrations and calls for a new day in court from former President Carter, a Democrat, and former U.S. Rep. Bob Barr, a Republican.
But now, as Davis’ execution looks increasingly likely, the advocates for a new case are turning their attention to Savannah’s newly elected prosecutor. The local NAACP chapter is imploring Chisolm to get involved. Carter sent him a letter recently, as did the Congressional Black Caucus.
“It is up to principled leaders like you to take the actions necessary to ensure that flaws are corrected, that wrongs are righted, and that justice prevails over injustice,” said the caucus’ letter, whose signatories included a Georgia civil rights icon, Democratic Rep. John Lewis.
If Chisolm -- a trim, fastidious 49-year-old with a quiet, measured voice -- was feeling the pressure on a hot Thursday afternoon, he didn’t let on.
As to whether he has the power to intervene, he said, smiling, “When you find that out would you let me know?”
Some of Davis’ supporters say that Chisolm indeed has the ability to intervene -- and they predict that he will have to make a decision soon. Though Davis has a petition pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, his lawyer, Jason Ewart, admits the filing is “a longshot.” An execution date has not been set; the high court could rule on the petition as early as this month.
If, as expected, the petition is denied, observers say that could leave Chisolm with a vexing choice.
He could ask the state parole board to postpone the execution and open a new investigation, as Davis’ attorneys have requested. That would be a bold move for a rookie elected official: Both the Georgia Supreme Court and the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals denied Davis a new trial, in part because courts view recantations as inherently suspect.
Reopening the case could also risk alienating white and conservative voters and complicate Chisolm’s relationship with the police force. But if Chisolm fails to intervene, “that would be very unpopular to a lot of black folk,” said the Rev. Matthew Southall Brown, a longtime black leader in Savannah.
“All eyes are on him to see what he’s going to do, and how he’s going to handle this thing,” said Brown, 77, the pastor emeritus of St. John Baptist Church. “It’s a Catch-22 for him. . . . You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.”
Though it has earned global attention, it is difficult to gauge how potent the Davis case is here. Savannah is an old-fashioned place that prizes gentility and manners, and even local activists say it’s no hotbed of public demonstration.
Moreover, the Davis saga has played out at a near-glacial pace. It was nearly two decades ago when Officer Mark MacPhail rushed across the dark parking lot to aid an African American homeless man who was being pistol-whipped by another man. Someone fatally shot MacPhail before he could help.
In court, nine witnesses testified against Davis. But seven of those witnesses began recanting their testimony in 2000 -- nine years after the trial. New witnesses have emerged who assert that a man other than Davis was the shooter, according to court filings from Davis’ attorneys.
Prince A. Jackson Jr., head of the Savannah branch of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, said that his group didn’t get involved early on because the case against Davis seemed so strong: “It was almost open and shut,” he said.
But the group has changed course over time. In hindsight, Jackson now says, the case was a “rush to judgment,” brought on in part by the fact that the officer was white.
Over the years, former Dist. Atty. Spencer Lawton Jr. -- who was portrayed unfavorably by author John Berendt in the nonfiction murder mystery “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” -- stood by his prosecution of Davis. Chisolm worked in his office as an assistant prosecutor from 1987 to 2006, but was not involved in the Davis case.
When Lawton announced he would retire in 2008, Chisolm decided to run on the Democratic ticket, even though Lawton, a 28-year veteran of the office, had handpicked Republican David Lock, his chief assistant, to be his successor.
Chisolm won the race over Lock in November with 54% of the vote, thanks in part to large black turnout for Barack Obama.
The achievement of the hometown lawyer generated pride among blacks in this Old South city. Chisolm’s father was a maintenance man at Savannah State University, the local black college. Chisolm left Savannah for Duke University, where he attended law school.
He returned home to a city where many black residents continue live in dire conditions amid charming, tourist-friendly historic squares. According to the 2000 census, 34% of black children in the Savannah metropolitan area live in poverty.
“It gave hope to all the other young African Americans who have ambitions and want to move up the ladder,” Jackson said.
Even as he pressures Chisolm to intervene in the Davis case, Jackson, like the Rev. Brown, admits that the new D.A. is “between a rock and a hard place.”
In the interview, Chisolm spoke generally about the death penalty, saying he supports it because it is Georgia law. He said he sought it twice as an assistant D.A., with both cases ending in life sentences.
Chisolm said he wouldn’t speak about the Davis case until all appeals were exhausted. And yet he did offer one comment: He noted that Officer MacPhail died coming to the aid of an African American.
“He put his life at risk to try to save the life of a black man,” he said. “And that’s a story in and of itself in terms of race, and where Savannah is in terms of race relations.”