Published July 5, 2007
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory joined an international effort to plead for clemency for a Georgia death row inmate.
Troy Davis, who was condemned for the fatal shooting of an off-duty police officer in Savannah, is scheduled to be the second man executed in Georgia this year. The State Board of Pardons and Paroles is Davis’ last hope to prevent the execution, after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his most recent appeal. The execution by lethal injection may take place in July. Death penalty opponents are urging the state board to stop the execution, citing questionable testimony at the trial.
Archbishop Gregory penned a letter to the board asking for clemency for Davis. The state has a right to punish lawbreakers, but “punishment and compensation can be achieved by incarceration with strict laws concerning parole,” he wrote.
“The death penalty is final. And we shouldn’t take a chance that we are putting a person to death who, in effect, may not be guilty,” said the archbishop.
He said the death penalty debate should not only focus on inmates, but also on victims and survivors to ensure they are well cared for.
A stack of letters and postcards more than a foot tall asks state officials to save Davis’ life. Anglican Archbishop-emeritus Desmond Tutu and Sister of St. Joseph Helen Prejean, a well-known advocate against the death penalty, have also written on behalf of Davis. Amnesty International is spearheading the effort.
“(Davis’) innocence claims are so strong,” said Laura Moye, the deputy director for the Southern regional office of Amnesty International, USA.
Moye said the case raises questions about possible police misconduct. The case drew a lot of attention because Davis, who is black, was accused of killing a white police officer, and in those high profile cases, authorities may have more interest in closing a case due to community pressure than looking for justice, she said.
Authorities said the shooting happened after a fight. Davis, 38, was convicted in 1991 for shooting Officer Mark McPhail, who was working as a security guard. At a nearby restaurant, a melee broke out as Davis hit a man with a pistol. McPhail, who was 27, ran toward the fight and was shot at close range.
Police investigators never found any physical evidence linking Davis to the crime, said Moye. The case against him is based on several witnesses, and many now say the police forced their testimony, she said.
For instance, one witness testified in court that Davis confessed to the shooting. In 2003, Jeffrey Sapp reversed his position and said: “Troy never told me anything about it. I got tired of them harassing me, and they made it clear that the only way they would leave me alone is if I told them what they wanted to hear.” Said Moye: “That is very, very disturbing.”
Davis’ appeals have been denied both at the Georgia Supreme Court and the federal courts.
Archbishop Gregory’s request comes two years after Catholic bishops renewed their push to abolish the death penalty, finding it “deeply flawed.”
“We reaffirm our common judgment that the use of the death penalty is unnecessary and unjustified in our time and circumstances. Ending the use of the death penalty would be one important step away from a culture of death toward building a culture of life,” said the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in a pastoral statement in 2005.
In 2006, 53 people in 14 states were put to death.
In February, Archbishop Gregory joined a call for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty. But four months later, the state put its first inmate to death after a two-year pause. He said the church’s role is to challenge people to consider the issue and look at it with honesty. “We make our society more brutal” by executing people, he said.
Inmates have walked free from death row after being cleared following new DNA tests and more advanced science, said the archbishop, adding it is wrong to risk killing an innocent person who didn’t commit the crime.
As of May, three inmates on death row identified themselves as Catholic, according to prison officials. The archbishop travels to death row at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison to celebrate Mass for the inmates. Davis is not Catholic.
The state board has several options, including changing Davis’ sentence to life in prison or issuing a pardon, Moye said.
For information visit the Georgians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty Web site, www.gfadp.org.