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Bill Rankin, Two archived reports from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: #2 Witnesses back off testimony against Troy Davis

#2 Then and now: Witnesses back off testimony against Troy Davis
by Bill Rankin, June 23, 2010

Savannah — One witness after another raised their right hands Wednesday and swore to tell the truth, just like they did 19 years ago when their testimony helped put Troy Anthony Davis on death row.

This time, however, four key prosecution witnesses gave markedly different statements, either saying they never saw Davis kill a Savannah policeman or never heard him confess to the crime.

Also Wednesday, a 36-year-old prison inmate offered surprise testimony, saying in court for the first time that he witnessed another man shooting and killing Officer Mark Allen MacPhail as he rushed to help a homeless man being pistol-whipped in a Burger King parking lot late one summer night in 1989.

The extraordinary hearing, ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court last August, continues Thursday as lawyers for the state Attorney General’s Office wrap up their side of the case.

Davis, 41, wearing a white prison uniform with a blue collar, was transferred from death row in Jackson to attend the hearing. He often sat back in his chair at the defense table, listening intently to testimony. Behind him in the packed federal courtroom sat members of his family and supporters. Across the aisle sat members of the MacPhail family.

Davis, whose execution has been halted three times, has long tried to present recantation testimony by key prosecution witnesses. U.S. District Judge William T. Moore Jr. is following orders from the high court to hear the new evidence and decide whether the new claims “clearly establish” Davis’ innocence, a high legal threshold Davis must clear to be spared from lethal injection.

Jeffrey Sapp acknowledged Wednesday that he testified at the 1991 trial that Davis told him he killed MacPhail. But Sapp said he only said what police told him what to say. At that time, he said, he was a “hustler” dealing drugs and feared he would be charged if he did not go along.

Sapp said police awakened him late one night and took him in for questioning. He said one officer was yelling at him in one ear, another officer was yelling in his other ear and another was yelling at him from behind.

“I was so scared I told them anything they wanted to hear,” he testified. “They kept saying, ‘Just say Troy told you. Just say Troy told you.'”

Another witness, Kevin McQueen, also testified at trial that Davis told him he shot and killed MacPhail. On Wednesday, he said that never happened.

“There’s no truth to it,” McQueen said, adding he was trying to get back at Davis for a dispute the two men had while awaiting trial at the county jail.

When asked by one of Davis’ lawyers, Philip Horton, if he had anything to gain by testifying now, McQueen replied, “Peace of mind.”

Davis’ legal team also summoned Benjamin Gordon, who testified that he saw Sylvester “Redd” Coles shoot and kill the officer.

Gordon, who is incarcerated and has at least six prior felony convictions, said he never came forward because he did not trust the police and feared what Coles might do to him or his family in retaliation.

“Is there any doubt in your mind that Redd Coles fired that shot?” Horton asked. “No, sir,” Gordon replied.

Davis’ legal team has long maintained that Coles, who was at the scene and came forward after MacPhail’s slaying and implicated Davis to police, was the actual triggerman. Coles has denied shooting MacPhail.

Beth Attaway Burton, the state’s lead attorney, got Gordon to acknowledge he never said he saw Coles shoot MacPhail in interviews with police or in sworn statements he gave Davis’ legal team in 2003 and 2008.

“What made you change your story today?” Burton asked.

“It’s the truth,” Gordon said.

Another witness, Anthony Hargrove, who is now in jail on an escape charge, testified Wednesday that Coles told him he shot and killed MacPhail and that Davis was taking the fall for it.

Burton objected, saying Hargrove’s statements as to what Coles allegedly told him were hearsay. Moore, appointed to the bench by President Bill Clinton, agreed.

After hearing arguments from Davis’ lawyers, Moore agreed to allow Hargrove to testify. But he said that unless Coles is called to the stand, he might give such hearsay testimony “no weight whatsoever.”

Hargrove then testified that while he and Coles were sharing a marijuana joint years ago Coles told him he killed MacPhail.

When asked by Burton why he didn’t tell police at the time, Hargrove said there were a number of warrants out for his arrest and he did not want to cause trouble for himself. “It’s called self preservation,” he said. “It’s the gospel of me first.”

State attorneys called three Savannah-Chatham County police officers to the stand at the close of Wednesday’s testimony. The officers insisted they did not threaten or coerce any witness into giving false testimony. Lt. Carl Ramey testified that Sapp flagged down police to tell them Davis had told him he killed MacPhail.

“I know why you’re here,” Sapp told officers patrolling the neighborhood, Ramey testified. “You’re here for Troy.”

Burton noted the officers conducted interviews just a few hours after the killing, suggesting there was not enough information available at the time to tell a witness what to say, even if the officers were inclined to do such a thing.

According to recent court motions, state lawyers on Thursday will introduce GBI reports on a pair of bloodied shorts that police seized from the home of Davis’ mother after the slaying. The reports were not allowed to be introduced at trial, but Moore has agreed to admit them into evidence.

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