For The Life of Her Brother
By Ron Lajoie
AIUSA Staff Writer
Martina and her brothers and sisters come from a good family, one that always played by the rules. As a kid she watched actress Sally Struthers on TV talk about "how just a quarter a day could save a starving child in Africa." She saved the quarters she earned from an after-school job in a pizzeria and sent them in to the address on the screen. Concerned about human rights, she joined Amnesty International while still a teenager. Dutiful to her parents and her community and proud of her country, she went into the army straight out of high school, serving honorably in the First Gulf War as an Army nurse. She planned to make army medicine a career. "I wanted to help people," she says.
Then something went terribly wrong. An altercation in a Burger King parking lot - a gun blast echoed into a Savannah, Georgia August evening, an off duty police officer went down in a pool of blood - and her brother Troy's life, Martina's and her family's changed forever.
Who shot the cop August 19, 1989 remains a matter of dispute. But Troy Davis had been in the parking lot that night and he was the one fingered by witnesses and eventually convicted of the crime. Martina firmly believes her younger brother is innocent; a spectator in the wrong place at the wrong time, and new evidence and testimony seems to back this up. But Troy is on Georgia's death row now - and the clock is ticking.
"I know Troy is innocent," she resolutely affirms. "Me and my brother are really, really close, where we can finish each others sentences and whether he was guilty or not I would stand by him, but the fact that he's innocent and in this position, it's like stabbing me in the chest.
"Troy was waiting to go into the Marine Corps. He had transferred to night school where he completed his high school education in order to take care of my sister who was paralyzed from the neck down. So he worked during the day and took care of my sister while my mom was working; did her hair, catheterized her, because she couldn't do anything for herself."
On June 25 the Supreme Court refused to hear Davis's case, permitting his execution to proceed. Earlier a state court had denied his habeas corpus petition - evidence of police coercion - on a technicality, ruling that the petition was "procedurally defaulted," that is, not raised earlier. The Georgia Supreme Court and 11th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals deferred to the state court and rejected Davis' claims. With the Supreme Court refusal to hear his case, Davis, now 38, is left without any judicial recourse; his execution could come as early as July 17.
"We are pleased with the decision of the Supreme Court today," stated Chatham County Chief Assistant District Attorney David Lock, who helped prosecute the case. "The claims of the defendant have been thoroughly reviewed in the various courts. We feel the Supreme Court has rendered a fair and impartial decision."
But doubt is certainly strong enough, Amnesty International believes, that Troy Davis should be granted a new trial.
"The Supreme Court decision is proof-positive that justice truly is blind - blind to coerced and recanted testimony, blind to the lack of a murder weapon or physical evidence and blind to the extremely dubious circumstances that led to this man's conviction," rebutted AIUSA Executive Director Larry Cox, the day of the Supreme Court's ruling. "At times there are cases that are emblematic of the dysfunctional application of justice in this country. By refusing to review serious claims of innocence, the Supreme Court has revealed catastrophic flaws in the U.S. death penalty machine."
That Amnesty International would intervene in a death penalty case, especially one where the merits of the state's conviction are so dubious, is not surprising. Amnesty International is, after all, an abolitionist organization. But there is something personal in this intervention. Martina Davis, who joined Amnesty International as a teenager while at boot camp, is Amnesty International's State Death Penalty Abolition Coordinator (SDPAC) for Georgia and Chair of AIUSA's Program to Abolish the Death Penalty Steering Committee.
"I joined Amnesty when I was a teenager in the army when I was in Colorado Springs, I think I was like 19 years old," she recalls. "That was 1986. I joined Amnesty never thinking that I'd be involved as far as death penalty work or have my brother involved in a death penalty case. I was in the library and I saw something about Amnesty International and how they work with the UN to help people around the world, so I signed up by mail."
In her SDPAC role she has certainly heard other death row inmates make claims of innocence. She knows most probably aren't. But the facts of her brother's case are certainly compelling. Davis' conviction was not based on any physical evidence. No weapon has ever been found. Seven of the nine witnesses that had initially testified to Troy's guilt have since retracted their testimony in sworn statements, some claiming police coercion. Of the two that remain, one is himself a prime suspect in the case.
A witness who signed a police statement declaring that Davis was the assailant, later admitted, "I did not read it because I cannot read." Another stated that the police "were telling me that I was an accessory to murder and that I would ... go to jail for a long time and I would be lucky if I ever got out, especially because a police officer got killed ... I was only 16 and was so scared of going to jail."
Then there are the several witnesses who have in fact implicated another man in the murder; Sylvester Coles, a local miscreant known to the Davis family. According to one woman, "People on the streets were talking about Sylvester Coles being involved with killing the police officer, so one day I asked him ... Sylvester told me that he did shoot the officer."
"Saturday morning Troy was walking the dog, washing the car like he usually does. A person that just shot and killed a police officer is not going to be doing that," Martina points out.
On Sunday he returned to Atlanta to work. It was Martina who called him telling him he'd better come home after she saw her brother's face on the TV over the lurid headline "cop killer, wanted dead or alive" in the middle of a dinner party she was having for friends. She was floored. Troy returned to Savannah the next morning, turning himself into the authorities, who nonetheless arranged for a full media circus to celebrate their "capture" complete with a perp-walk.
That was when the community, friends and neighbors, turned on the family.
"They treated my mother like she raised my brother to be a killer," she recalls. "Even the black community. What hurt me more was the black community separated themselves from us; the ministers, the people. Even the president of the NAACP in Savannah, where my brother used to hang out in his den all the time when we lived around the corner, said it was a shame to have somebody like Troy Davis live in our community. And this was right after my brother was arrested. I mean he hadn't even gone to court."
The social ostracism continued during the trial. As the defendant's family, they were kept out the courtroom until the end of the trial, only then to beg for their son's and brother's life.
"We weren't in the court, not when they said they found him guilty," she remembers. "We were in the court when they did the sentencing phase, my mom, my dad, my sister, I don't think my little brother and little sister were there because they were still fairly young. I didn't even realize this until I really started working with death penalty families, but the tactic is to keep the families out of the courtroom so it doesn't look like this person has anybody to support them. The courtroom was separated black and white.
The worst moment of Martina's life was when the judge delivered the sentence.
"I felt like I was dead. I had this cold chill that went through my body," she shudders. "They give you the execution date in the next sentence and it was like the next month. I didn't know anything about death penalty procedures up until that point, except writing those letters to people for Amnesty, and so I thought my brother would be killed in less than 30 days. There was this one white deputy, he came up to my family and he said, ‘I'm going to clear this courtroom and let everybody out. But what I want to do is I want to take ya'll back to the back and let you go down through the tunnel.' So we went down through the tunnel and out the building, because the newspaper reporters were all out there and I think he could see the pain in my mother's eyes."
There would be more pain, both emotional and physical for the family. Martina's dad died within months of the verdict. Martina would learn she was suffering from breast cancer. She suspects it may have been caused by exposure to God knows what in the First Gulf War. Through it all she has continued her struggle for her brother, and though her work with Amnesty, for all the abandoned men, guilty or not, on Georgia's death row.
She has signed petitions, handed out postcards, talked to lawyers, gone to the vigils outside the prison walls when other inmates are put to death, (enduring the insults of her fellow citizens who casually flip her the bird), traveled to other states and other countries to talk about America's peculiar institution. Always the altruistic one, she now works to raise funds for breast cancer research too. For her work with AI and other charitable organizations she was named the United Way Volunteer Leader of the Year in 2004, given the Savannah State University Human Right Support Award, Spirit of Excellence Unstoppable Woman 2006 Award and various other community and civic honors.
She's done this while raising her son Antone, shielding him from the harsh reality of his uncle's situation until she thought he would be old enough to understand it. Thirteen now, he comes along whenever she visits his "Uncle Troy" in prison. They make little cardboard airplanes together out of Reese's Peanut Butter Cup wrappers and fly them around the death house.
Her continued faith in God and the rightness of her struggle keeps her strong. She is angry yes, but she chooses to channel it positively. She still loves her country, even though she admits she hates how it sometimes behaves in the world and some of the things it has done to her family and to other "people that look like me."
"I've always been a strong person" she understates. "I'm going to fight for my brother as long as I can. I'll be damned if I'm going to sit here and seven of nine of my brother's accusers have recanted, and you are just going to say to hell with that, we're still going to kill him. How is that right? How is that justice for the other family?"
Right now Troy Davis' sole hope is getting the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant clemency. The Board could decide to commute the sentence to either life, or life without parole.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International activists all over the world are in a full-court press, flooding the board with urgent appeals to save Troy Davis' life. This is, after all, one of our family. (So far Bishop Desmond Tutu, Rev. Jesse Jackson Jr., Sr. Helen Prejean, singer Harry Belafonte and actor Mike Farrell have written letters on Troy's behalf.)
"I am still truly optimistic, so many people are working hard on his behalf and we expected the Supreme Court not to rule," she acknowledges. "But the lawyers are still working and activists from around the world are writing and emailing and calling. Troy Anthony Davis is making a statement about human rights and people are listening."
What this is doing to her mom is Martina's main concern.
"I think the worst thing for me in this situation is my mother. My mother has not done anything to anybody, not even a parking ticket. And she's walking around right now going into barber shops to get postcards signed to try save her child. Sometimes I walk into the garage and I hear her saying her prayers. She's on her knees and she's crying and she's begging God to please help my brother. And I can't stand it."