I have nothing but sympathy for the family of the late Mark Allen MacPhail, a Savannah police officer who was shot dead in August 1989. His family members deserve justice.
But they will receive it only if the criminal justice system has prosecuted and convicted the man who actually murdered MacPhail. Troy Davis, who sits on death row for the murder, may be that man. He may not be. And that’s the problem.
Many earlier witnesses have recanted their testimony since the original 1991 trial, so it’s not clear that Davis pulled the trigger. Given the recantations, the U.S. Supreme Court was right to order a lower court to give Davis a new hearing. Yesterday, in a highly unusual ruling, the nation’s highest court ordered a federal judge in Georgia to hear new testimony and decide whether it “clearly establishes” Davis’ innocence.
That’s a very high hurdle. And, in the absence of virtually indisputable evidence such as DNA (there is none in this case), it’s unlikely that Davis can meet the test.
Still, it’s important that Davis be given the opportunity. The most compelling testimony is likely to come from Tonya Johnson, who did not testify at the original trial. She has since implicated Sylvestor “Redd” Coles, the prosecution’s star witness, who came forward to tell police that Davis had pulled the trigger. But Johnson says she saw Coles, whom she feared, come running from the parking lot where MacPhail was murdered and drop two guns behind a screen door at the vacant apartment next to hers on that August night. He seemed “panicked,” she has said.