Troy Davis, Picking Cotton, and memoir writing

Troy Davis was executed last night based on eye witness accounts of him murdering an off-duty policeman working as an unarmed security guard. Officer Mark MacPhail was shot to death protecting a homeless man, leaving behind a wife and two babies. The killer, identified by nine witnesses, was Troy Davis. Mr. Davis, however, insisted he was innocent and his lawyers appealed, but to naught. No gun was ever found, no physical evidence linked Davis to the crime. Only the eye witnesses.

Now Mr. Davis was no innocent; he was convicted of another crime that happened days before the MacPhail murder. That crime involved bullet casings that matched up with those found at the MacPhail murder scene. Mr. Davis also hung out with minor criminals in a bad neighborhood of drug dealers and addicts. But, did he actually kill Officer MacPhail?

Per a Reuters article, “Since Davis’s conviction, seven of nine witnesses have changed or recanted their testimony, some have said they were coerced by police to testify against him and some say another man committed the crime.” A number of people not called to the witness stand are saying Sylvester “Red” Coles did it and let Davis take the fall. But, two of the original witnesses were still sure they saw Ray Davis shoot Officer MacPhail. Is their eye-witness testimony alone enough to justify executing a man?

Many memoir writers know the truth is hard to find. When I tell stories of my childhood, sometimes my sister doesn’t know what I am talking about, even though she was there in the stories. Sometimes I don’t know what she’s talking about. Sometimes we help each other fill in gaps. Now try pinning down details of settings and the timing of events and what strangers were around. Try pinning down details when you’re watching something bad happen across a parking lot and it’s getting dark and you’re scared. Jennifer Thompson-Canino knows all about that.

Jennifer Thompson was raped by Ronald Cotton. She picked him out of a line-up. He went to jail. Then DNA evidence found he was the wrong man and he was freed. After eleven years. Jennifer Thompson was positive she had the right man. What happened? In 2009 her memoir with Ronald Cotton was published: Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption. I guess the Georgia State and the U.S. Supreme Court justices haven’t read it.

Linda Austin
“Cherry Blossoms in Twilight”


About moonbridgebooks

Co-author of Cherry Blossoms in Twilight, a WWII Japan memoir of her mother's childhood; author of Poems That Come to Mind, for caregivers of dementia patients; Co-author/Editor of Battlefield Doc, a medic's memoir of combat duty during the Korean War; life writing enthusiast; loves history and culture (especially Japan), poetry, and cats
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5 Responses to Troy Davis, Picking Cotton, and memoir writing

  1. Linda says:

    You've shared powerful, heart-gripping examples for all of us, including memoirists, of the elusive nature of witnessing "truth." I have not heard of the memoir, Picking Cotton, but it must be wrenching.Linda

  2. kathy says:

    My friend is a police man. He shared that when there is an accident and they interview the eye witnesses it is very common to get many different versions of what happened. So waiting and writing makes the accuracy of events even more sketchy. (And what did I have for breakfast today?)

  3. Linda Austin says:

    Thanks for commenting, Linda and Kathy. Telling "our truth" in stories is one thing, but I'd sure hate to have someone's life hanging on what I thought I saw.

  4. Jerry Waxler says:

    Thanks, Linda. The whole notion of imprisoning the wrong person is so disheartening, it's far easier to pretend it never happens. But of course it does, as demonstrated by the memoir Picking Cotton. Both the accuser and the falsely accused are active in the Innocence Project. For an essay about Picking Cotton, check out my blog. Here's the link directly to the essay. Memory Writers Network Jerry

  5. Linda Austin says:

    Ah, Jerry, I should have known you also would have written about this. When I first heard about the book on the Diane Rehm Show in 2009, I was quite impressed by it and the interview. My original blogpost was Mar 12, 2009.

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