That August night was humid. The air stuck to the skin of Officer Mark MacPhail, who had left his daughter and infant son at home to fill his off-duty hours working the graveyard shift as a Burger King security guard. Witnesses would later testify ((“Eyewitness error played a role in 45 of the first 86 exonerations from death row, and, according to the Innocence Project [an organization dedicated to exonerating prisoners from death row], it is the leading cause of wrongful convictions,” Anne Holsinger of the Death Penalty Information Center told the Independent.)) that MacPhail, seeing a man being robbed, beaten, and pistol-whipped in an adjacent parking lot, ran to his rescue. He was shot and killed before he reached them. It was Troy Davis ((Troy Davis was a black man convicted of the murder of a white police officer in the South. The Troy Davis case distills “the precise essence of the use of the death penalty in the twentieth century America,” says David Garland, a professor at NYU law school and author of a recent book on capital punishment, in an interview with the Independent.)) who pulled the trigger, they would say. The court stenographer would record accounts of Davis’s confession to two different witnesses. Davis was also suspected in another shooting case, read the police reports. A ballistics expert would confirm that the bullets used in the second shooting were the same ones that killed MacPhail.
In the decades that followed, the case saw several appeals, ((Proponents of the death penalty argue that there is adequate “quality control” in death sentencing. “It is never a speedy execution,” Garland remarks. “There is a concern to get it right.”)) two stays of execution, and continual denials for a retrial ((Those against capital punishment call the safeguards put in place to prevent execution of innocents “The Big Lie.” Subsequent levels of courts are permitted to review trial records, but rarely is the case retried and the actual evidence re-examined. To Garland, quality control “is shackled by technical limitations.”)) . In these twenty-two years, Davis was unable to prove his innocence. America questioned whether the prosecution had managed to prove his guilt ((“Once a defendant is convicted, the burden of proof shifts from the prosecution, who must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, to the defense, who must present clear and compelling evidence of misconduct or errors during the trial,” Holsinger explains.)) .
Davis’s defense attorneys brandished affidavits signed by witnesses swearing recanted testimony. They called attention to leading interrogation tactics by police investigators, and the questionable credibility of accusations against their client.
No definitive proof, cried the defense. “Smoke and mirrors,” dismissed Judge William T. Moore. Murder of an innocent ((Despite emphasis on the possibility of wrongful execution by those against the death penalty, there has not been a single proven case of executed innocence. While innocence is suspected in some cases, the evidence has never been definitive.)) , insisted both sides.
After 203 minutes of deliberation by the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles, Davis was executed at 11:08 PM on September 21, 2011 ((The exterior of the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison was surrounded by supporters in protest and candlelight vigil on the night of Davis’s execution. A small group of death penalty supporters was also present.)) . Davis looked through the one-way display to where he could only assume was standing the family of his supposed victim. All he saw was a fearfully resigned face staring back at him. "I did not personally kill your son, father, brother. All I can ask is that you look deep into this case so you can really find the truth. "
He then turned to those preparing the lethal cocktail, and gave a final benediction ((Pope Benedict XVI, former President Jimmy Carter, and former FBI Director William Sessions were among those who called for clemency for Troy Davis.)) . "May God have mercy on your souls.”
CARLOS DE LUNA
Jurors slept soundly the night after Carlos De Luna was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of Maria Lopez. He had been found hiding under a truck near the gas station that served as her final resting place. The counter dripped with blood where the store clerk had been stabbed to death while her screams echoed through the receiver to a helpless 911 dispatcher on the other end. Screams that would later echo through a tape recorder in a crowded courtroom. He provided a malleable alibi; he was walking home unaccompanied from a nightclub. Or maybe he was accompanied by an acquaintance. Maybe this acquaintance, another Carlos, Carlos Hernandez, was the true culprit.
On December 7, 1989, De Luna thanked the Texas state prison wardens for their kind treatment, prayed with the death-house chaplain, and watched a potassium solution bubble into his veins. He died with no last meal ((In September of 2011, Texas ended the practice of granting death row inmates a last meal before their execution. The decision came in response to one overly extravagant request, and was spearheaded by Senator John Whitmire, who cited a blatant waste of prison resources. Lawrence Brewer, condemned to die for the hate crime of dragging James Byrd Jr., to death requested two chicken-fried steaks with gravy and sliced onions; a triple-patty bacon cheeseburger; a cheese omelet with ground beef, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers and jalapeños; a bowl of fried okra with ketchup; a pound of barbecued meat with half a loaf of white bread; three fajitas; a meat-lover’s pizza; a pint of Blue Bell Ice Cream; a slab of peanut-butter fudge with crushed peanuts; and three root beers. Prison workers prepared the meal, but Brewer chose not to eat it.)) and no global protest. The case of Maria Lopez was considered closed.
Meanwhile, the phantom Carlos Hernandez had a penchant for violence and lurking around gas stations, a knife in his pocket. He jumped from parole boards to procedural hearings, leaving a string of stabbed women in his wake. It was cirrhosis of the liver and not a needle in the arm that put Hernandez to death as he was serving a sentence for assault. His body was brought from the prison to his mother’s home. “Bury him in the ground there,” was her only request, before she slammed the door in the guards’ faces.
One morning, the pages of the Chicago Tribune fell open to reveal the exhumed cases of the two men named Carlos. The story dug up by investigative reporters revealed phone calls with unpursued evidence against Hernandez. It was reported that Hernandez had confessed to the crime while in jail.
De Luna spent six years awaiting execution ((Today, 34 states retain the death penalty and over 3,000 inmates across the country are waiting on death row.)) . He fixed shoes in a prison shop, and sniffed the glue used for mending to get high. He only ever blamed himself for ending up on death row. "I sometimes sit here at night, and I cry to myself, and I wonder how could I have ever let some stupid thing like this happen because of a friend who did it and I kept my mouth shut about it all. But I don't blame anyone but myself…that is why I accept it if the state of Texas ((Texas has executed 475 convicts since re-instatement of the death penalty in 1976.)) decides to execute me ((Supreme Court Justice Scalia, a known proponent of the death penalty’s constitutionality, wrote in an opinion to Kansas v. Marsh that “one cannot have a system of criminal punishment without accepting the possibility that someone will be punished mistakenly.” To Scalia, execution of innocents is a necessary margin.)) ."
Wanda McCoy was nineteen when she was raped and nearly beheaded in a bloody stabbing on March 10, 1981. Black coal dust blanketed her mangled body. The door to her home did not appear to have be forced. That night, her brother-in-law was fired from his job at a coal mine. His pants would be found spattered with and then tested for Type O blood. Though he claimed to still have been at work at the time of the murder, though there was no conclusive evidence to pin him at the scene, though evidence arose later that maybe the door was in fact forced, one puzzle piece was fit forcedly with another, and Roger Coleman was convicted for rape and murder.
For eleven years on the state of Virginia’s death row, Coleman lived the life of a celebrated martyr. His face haunted the country’s conscience on the cover of Times magazine under a headline reading ‘This Man Might Be Innocent. This Man Is Due to Die.’ An average, middle-aged white man, bespectacled and entirely relatable, became a victim. From within the frames of countless television sets, he supplicated captive living room spectators in interviews conducted from death row by the Today Show, Larry King Live, Good Morning America.
Coleman spent his final hours with James McCloskey, a private investigator and abolitionist who had devoted his own life to efforts to free this wrongfully convicted ((Those who call for the end of the death penalty are called abolitionists, bringing to mind anti-slavery crusaders and an unsettling comparison to another fight to alter the Constitution of the United States.)) . As a last meal, they shared slices of cold pizza.
"An innocent man is going to be murdered tonight,” Coleman proclaimed from under the gurney straps, still with dignity, still equanimity. “When my innocence is proven, I hope America will realize the injustice of the death penalty as all other civilized countries have ((America is the last “first-world” country to retain use of the death penalty.)) ."
McCloskey kept up the fight beyond the death chamber, never losing sight of Coleman’s cause. DNA does not lie. DNA would be the proof Coleman had needed to clear his name. When McCloskey appealed to the Virginia governor for a test of the semen left in Wanda McCoy’s body, he believed he had finally fulfilled the mission of his ministry ((Organizations such as Centurion Ministries (Executive Director, James McCloskey) and the Innocent Project work to exonerate suspected innocents from death row.)) .
The match came back positive. Coleman was guilty.
Stories can teach lessons, spin nightmares ((“Innocence is the nightmare of the death penalty,” says Garland. “You can’t redeem that mistake.”)) , lull children ((It was only in 2005 that the execution of those under the age of 18 at the time of the crime was declared unconstitutional (Roper v. Simmons).)) to sleep. The wolf donned a suit of wool; the King turned his daughter to gold; and then there were none and they all lived happily ever after. Listener and narrator alike search for a moral in these tales, rules by which to shape lives unregulated, by which to predict and prepare for future decisions. Man will be born and he will continue to die ((“If the Supreme Court leaves full jurisdiction over the retention of the death penalty to individual states, Texas will have the death penalty forever.” (David Garland))) , and in this time stories will always be told ((“So much has been written and said on the subject of capital punishments that it seems almost like presumptive vanity to pursue the topic any further.” –Philadelphia Repertory newspaper, 1812.)) .
BELLE CUSHING B’13 would request a Black Label burger for her last meal.