ANALYSIS: Witness Recantations Discounted in Davis Case


(APN) ATLANTA — When a Chatham County, Georgia, jury handed down a death sentence for Troy Anthony Davis in 1991, the only evidence they had to go on was eyewitness testimony.

The prosecution never presented any physical evidence implicating Davis in the 1989 murder of Savannah police officer Mark Allen MacPhail in a Burger King parking lot.

Since Davis’s conviction, many witnesses have either changed or recanted their original testimony. Some claim Savannah police officers coerced them into implicating Davis.

Others have come forward implicating a different man, Sylvester “Red” Coles, one of only two witnesses not to have changed his story.

Attorneys for Davis submitted this new evidence to the Georgia Supreme Court in November 2007, arguing their client is a victim of mistaken identity, as previously reported by Atlanta Progressive News.

But in denying Davis’s motion for a new trial Monday, March 17, 2008, a majority of the Court decided to favor the original testimony over the new, arguing memories of the event were more accurate when they were closer to the time of the crime.

The following is APN’s analysis of the witnesses, original testimony, new testimony, and the majority opinion on the matter.


Sapp testified at the original trial that Davis struck Larry Young, a homeless man, in the Burger King parking lot, shot Officer MacPhail, and “finished the job.”

However, in a 1996 affidavit, Sapp said he lied to officers about Davis’s admission because he wanted law enforcement to stop “harassing” him and felt pressured by police to tell his story at trial.

McQueen testified at trial that, while in jail, Davis admitted to shooting MacPhail once and then again because the officer had seen Davis’s face.

McQueen recanted in a 1996 affidavit, saying he lied about Davis’s admission because he was mad at Davis.

The Court ruled these two recantations only show Davis did not make an admission to the two men, but does not prove he is innocent.

Furthermore, the Court ruled these affidavits do not support an extraordinary motion for a new trial because they do not show the original trial testimony to have been the “purest fabrication.”

The Court noted these affidavits were obtained long before Davis initiated his federal habeas corpus proceedings, arguing Davis has not been diligent in presenting these affidavits to the trial court, which the Court rules is a requirement in an extraordinary motion for a new trial.

Davis did not receive adequate legal representation, however, due to budget cuts affecting public defenders in Georgia.


Collins testified at trial that he saw Davis first approach and then strike Young.

In 2002, Collins admitted in an affidavit that he did not see Davis strike Young and only said this at trial because he felt pressured to do so.

The Court ruled this new testimony does not show Davis is innocent of striking Young or of shooting MacPhail.

The Court also argued the new admission does not show Collins’s original testimony to have been the “purest fabrication.”


Williams testified at trial that he was “60 percent” certain Davis shot MacPhail. He also described the location where the person who struck Young was, which was consistent with Davis’s location at the time of the crime.

Williams said in a 2002 affidavit that he could not identity the shooter.

The Court ruled Williams’s recantation does not show Davis to be innocent and does not prove Williams’s original testimony to be the “purest fabrication.”


Ferrell identified Davis as the shooter at the original trial, but recanted in a 2000 affidavit, saying she felt pressured to implicate Davis and did not actually see who shot MacPhail.

The Court ruled her affidavit testimony does not show her original testimony to have been the “purest fabrication.”


Murray fingered Davis as the shooter at trial, describing in detail his physical features and his gun. Defense attorneys cross-examined Murray about inconsistencies between her testimony and statements she made to investigators and in Davis’s preliminary hearings. But Murray did not back down from her story.

In an unnotarized 2002 statement, Murray identifies Coles as the shooter. Davis also submitted a 2002 affidavit from an attorney who stated that when Murray signed her new statement, she refused to wait for a notary to arrive or for a notary to come to her house later.

The Court ruled the affidavit presented by Davis as an explanation for the absence of Murray’s sworn statement is inadequate and the Court chose to ignore it.

Furthermore, the Court noted even if it did consider the unsworn statement, it does not show Murray’s original testimony to have been the “purest fabrication.”


These three submitted separate affidavits, all in 2001, and each claim Coles admitted to being the shooter.

Hargrove stated that he and Coles were smoking marijuana at a party about a year after the murder when Coles admitted, “he killed a policeman and a guy named Troy took the fall for it.”

Riley stated she asked Coles what happened to MacPhail while the two were sitting by a pool drinking beer. Coles stated he shot the officer but it was an accident.

She added, “Maybe Sylvester was just trying to impress me. I don’t know for sure who actually shot the officer.”

Taylor said Coles frequently threatened people and boasted about his violent nature. Taylor asked Coles one day about the rumor that Coles was the shooter while the two were drinking beer together.

Coles first told Taylor to “stay out of his business,” then indicated he was the shooter.

The Court dismissed all three, arguing each contains evidence that they are not trustworthy.


Both women stated in affidavits they observed Coles in possession of a handgun just after the murder.

The Court ruled Davis failed to show due diligence in obtaining and presenting this information sooner.

The Court noted Johnson was a witness at trial and available to Davis at that time. Also, Saddler’s affidavit reveals Johnson could have identified her, showing she was also available at the time of trial.

These two affidavits are not so material that they support an extraordinary motion for a new trial, the Court concluded.


One of many members of the military waiting at the Burger King drive thru on the night of the murder, Kinsman testified in an unnotarized 2002 affidavit he was “confident” he could not make an ID of the shooter because of poor lighting and “the chaotic nature of the scene.”

Kinsman did say he had no doubt the shooter used his left hand and the gun had a “shiny” finish. His unsworn statement is accompanied by an affidavit from an attorney explaining he was unsuccessful in repeated attempts to notarize Kinsman’s statement.

The Court ruled, like in the case of Murray, that the old explanation for the lack of sworn testimony is inadequate and that Davis failed to show due diligence in obtaining new testimony from a witness the Court said was readily available pre-trial.

The Court also called this affidavit questionable because, although Kinsman described the gun as “shiny,” other witnesses testified at trial the gun was dark in color, shedding little light on if the gun belonged to Davis or Coles.

Furthermore, the Court noted Davis has failed to show which is his dominant hand or which is Coles’s.


Brother of Anthony Hargrove, he stated in a 2001 affidavit he was a witness to the murder but did not come forward at the time because he was on parole and out past his curfew.

Gary Hargrove testified he saw Davis continue to run when MacPhail shouted for he and Coles to stop. Hargrove said he saw Coles stop.

Other witnesses indicated that one man struck Young and continued to run when MacPhail ordered him to stop.

The Court ruled that this affidavit may prove Davis was the shooter based on the testimony of other witnesses.

About the author:

Jonathan Springston is a Senior Staff Writer for Atlanta Progressive News and may be reached at

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