Press limitations kept the complete Troy Davis story from getting told

by

Published: October 2,2011

Tags: MBJ column, Savannah (Ga.), Ted Carter, Troy Davis

Savannah police perp-walked Troy Davis my first day on the Savannah (Ga.) Morning News metro desk back in August 1989.

Just named the trigger-man in the shooting death of Savannah Police Officer Mark MacPhail, the handcuffed young black man wore an illustrated T-shirt promoting “Turtles Records & Tapes,” a local record store. The future business journalist in me caused me to blurt out to no one in particular: “This ain’t good for Turtles.”

Today, even in my limited wisdom, I can say Troy Davis’ execution in mid September “ain’t good” for anyone involved.

I hated to hear the news. Not just because seven out of nine witnesses recanted their trial testimony and the state produced no physical evidence to back its claim that he pulled the trigger that night in the parking lot of a Burger King where Officer MacPhail worked off-duty security.

No, the news bothered me as well because state executions diminish our collective spirit, as Texas balladeer Steve Earle reminds us in introducing his mournful “Going Over Yonder.”

For the rest of the sadness inflicted on me by the Davis execution, I blame some shortcomings I know about first hand, some belonging to me.

I twisted and turned in bed the night Davis died, unable to get free from an anxiety caused by the “what ifs” replaying in my head.

Maybe I should have questioned the newspaper for not seeming to want to go much beyond pro forma treatment of the story once the spotlight on the slaying and quick arrest of Troy Davis dimmed.

Maybe I could’ve leaned harder on the reporters on the police and courthouse beats to go deeper and wider in checking the police account of the slaying.

Maybe I figured that doing either of these things would’ve got me a bus ticket out of town.

Just as Jackson’s daily newspaper can attest, chronicling crime too intensely or too frequently can bring grief to a paper.

Look at it this way: Spotlighting too much crime can cut into commerce. More specifically, stories about cop slayings in restaurant parking lots don’t draw visitors to a city like Savannah whose bread is buttered on both sides by tourism spending.

Not until a couple years later when the publisher of the Morning News killed a completed series that took an exhaustive look at crime in the city would I come to fully understand how fully the power structure can compromise the press.

It also took some time to pick up on the routine the paper followed in its coverage of local crime and punishment.

With some variation, the play on the cop shop beat went like this:

Homicide or other serious crime occurs.

Police make an arrest that is reported forthwith, along with photos of the obligatory perp-walk.

Reporter does an interview with the public defender or newly hired lawyer for the suspect.

Detectives present the reporter some inside details of the investigation and include enough color and human drama to ensure their account goes page one above the fold.

The police reporter gets an attaboy for weaving a fine yarn.

That was all, folks, at least as far as I could tell.

New crimes, many of them deadly, continued day and night, keeping the cop reporter too busy to double-back on a slaying case that seemed all but wrapped up, especially one with at least seven prosecution witnesses.

The cops were saying it was all good with the Davis case.

But what exactly were the witnesses saying outside the presence of the authorities?

To what degree were eyewitnesses influenced by what was said and done when police got them all together for a re-enactment of the slaying? What did the witnesses talk to each other about on that occasion?

I don’t think we tried very hard to find out.

It did not take long to get a fix on the routine of the paper’s courthouse reporter. A cantankerous individual with 20 years on the beat, he was going to do things his way and didn’t much care what the metro desk thought.

His pattern seldom varied:

Cover grand jury indictment.

Cover pleading procedure.

Write an advance story a day or so ahead of the trial.

Get an “atmosphere” type story out of jury selection.

Cover the testimony in stenographic fashion.

Report the verdict.

Here is what the pattern excluded:

Any effort to find whether police or prosecutors coerced testimony.

Or pressing of prosecutors on why they had no physical evidence of Troy Davis’ guilt.

More skepticism about what occurred in that dimly lit parking lot 22 years ago may have changed the “this-ain’t-good” conclusion to the Troy Davis story.

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