Despite his claims of innocence and a roster of high-powered supporters, Troy Davis was executed late Wednesday night for the 1989 murder of an off-duty Savannah, Ga., police officer.
Strapped to a gurney in the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison about four hours after his scheduled 7 p.m. execution, Davis, 42, lifted his head and used some of his last words to deny his guilt to the family of the victim, Mark MacPhail.
The incident that night 22 years ago was not his fault, he said, according to media witnesses. He said he did not even have a gun.
“I personally did not kill your son, father and brother,” he said. “I am innocent.”
He was pronounced dead at 11:08 p.m., and a coroner’s van hauled away his body.
It was the end of a drama that was followed by thousands of death penalty opponents and others around the world. It began on an August night in downtown Savannah, when MacPhail, an off-duty officer working as a security guard, was gunned down in a bus station parking lot as he came to the aid of a homeless man. Davis, whose nickname, according to court documents, was RAH, for “Rough as Hell,” was convicted two years later in a jury trial and sentenced to death.
But beginning in 2000, several witnesses whose testimony was crucial to his conviction began recanting their statements. Davis would ultimately face four execution dates as he fought for his life in the courts.
On orders of the U.S. Supreme Court, a federal district court judge heard the new evidence in 2010 but determined that much of it was “largely smoke and mirrors,” with the recantations unreliable, partial or unbelievable.
This week, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles declined to grant Davis clemency. Outcry continued on the streets of Atlanta and in front of U.S. embassies around the world. During the legal odyssey, Davis picked up support from former President Carter, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Pope Benedict XVI, former FBI Director William Sessions and former Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.).
On Wednesday, Davis’ attorneys tried several last-ditch measures to win a reprieve or clemency, including petitioning the Georgia Supreme Court, the pardons and paroles board and, finally, the Supreme Court.
The high court held onto his attorneys’ two-page petition for more than four hours, but ultimately refused to intervene. The justices issued no comment and no dissent, just a one-sentence order:
“The application for stay of execution of sentence of death presented to Justice Thomas and by him referred to the court is denied.”
Justice Clarence Thomas is the justice for the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Georgia, Florida and Alabama. Although emergency appeals are sent first to the justice who oversees the circuit, all nine justices decide the issue.
On Wednesday afternoon, Davis’ supporters began descending on Jackson, a small town 45 minutes south of Atlanta. They included Benjamin Jealous, president of the NAACP, and Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA.
Across the street from the prison, supporters held a rally and news conference at the Towaliga County Line Missionary Baptist Church. A crowd filled the pews, some with shirts that read, “I am Troy Davis.”
“Make no mistakes,” Edward DuBose, head of the Georgia NAACP, told them. “They call it an execution; we call it a murder.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton called Davis the victim of a “criminal justice system that will not listen to reason or right.”
Martina Davis-Correia, Davis’ sister, took the stage, thin and in a wheelchair, surrounded by fellow family members. She said she had been battling cancer for 10 years. “His life hangs in the balance,” she said. “And he knows he’s an innocent man.”
Inside the prison grounds, a few hundred Davis supporters chanted, prayed and sang.
Fewer than a dozen counter-protesters stood in a separate roped-off area. Their T-shirts included the likeness of MacPhail and this tribute: “He answered the call and gave us his all.”
Dawn Dalton, a friend of the MacPhail family from Columbus, Ga., said the execution had been fully vetted by the court system.
“I’m here to support Mark, and I’m here for justice for Mark,” she said.
After the high court refused to intercede, the NAACP’s Jealous went on live TV. “It’s a sad day for our country,” he said.
An Amnesty International member passed out a statement from Cox: “The state of Georgia has proven that the death penalty is too great a power to give to the government.”
Cox said the protesters and activists would recommit to try to overturn the death penalty in the U.S.
David G. Savage in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.