Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Postmortem Evaluation of Troy Anthony Davis: Shirt-Swapping

In the previous postmortem post, I took a look at how well we were able to confine ourselves to the facts of the case, and to construct a logical arguments of guilt or innocence. I think we did pretty good. Some of us have room for improvement. I include myself in the group.

I'm apparently a slow learner, too. Last night I posted retroactively on the Steven Woods case. I allowed myself to go in for some poorly supported bad character claims, and I'll have to clean that up when I get a chance.

Tonight, I want to talk about how we did on the Sylvestor Coles shirt-swapping issue.

As I evaluate cases, I find most to be routine examples of man's inhumanity to others. It seems, though, that the ones with a potential for wrongful conviction have one or more tells that catch my eye and draw me in.

With respect to Byron Case, it was a mis-transcribed audio recording that made me begin to seriously question the State's case. It was the fact that the victim died with her eyes open that caused me to discover a little-known time-of-death marker that convinced me Byron is factually innocent. (I just finished a 19 page amicus letter in support of his petition for absolute pardon. I'll be sharing that before too long.)

In the Michael Ledford case, it was two missing candle holders and a strange looking circuit breaker that told me that Michael did not kill his one year old son via arson. (I just finished drafting a 147 page petition for absolute pardon for his case. I'll be sharing that sometime down the road.)

In the Cameron Todd Willingham case, it struck me that the State had a serious, serious conservation of mass problem. Willingham allegedly covered a large bedroom, a hallway, both sides of a door, and a porch with enough lighter fluid that it formed puddles and soaked deep into the flooring. They only found one small empty container of lighter fluid, and that was by the barbeque.

That conservaton of mass problem and of course the requisite lying ass snitch.

In Cory Maye, the case was littered with tells. Littered. A cop had been killed, however, and the police were going to see to it that Cory Maye paid the ultimate price. On a high note, Cory Maye walked free just a month or so ago.

Hank Skinner: Unknown fingerprints on a trash bag that held the bloody knife; untested DNA from a rape kit and from beneath the victim's fingernails. No scratches on Hank.

Larry Swearingen: Undigested tater tots and McNuggets in victim's stomach.

Frances Elaine Newton: A phone call reporting a gunshot that didn't fit into the police timeline.

Johnny Frank Garrett: A bent butterknife that the State claimed Garrett used to strangle a nun. (Who would strangle someone with a butterknife?)

As I worked on the Troy Davis case, two tells set off claxons in my skeptical head. The shirt swapping story and Dorothy Ferrell recognizing Davis' photo on the seat of a police car that just happened to stop by on an unrelated matter. Hahahahaha. Good one.

The one that set off a chime rather than a claxon is Officer MacPhail allegedly running right past Coles to confront Davis, even though MacPhail allegedly responded to the screams and did not see who struck the beer-hoarding Young. More than a couple of you readers homed in on that one.

The one that I completely missed, until Reader R. Lee pointed it out to me, was how everyone knew the color of one shirt (white) but almost no one mentioned the color of the other shirt (presumably yellow.)  "The only pre-Coles statement to include the color Yellow in it is Young's."

Good one, R. Lee.

As I already mentioned, before ambling about randomly for a while, I intend to focus (like a laser) in this post on the shirt swapping incident. It's time I get on with it.

Let's look first what I had to say about the shirt-swapping incident.
Had I been a juror, claxons would have been blaring in my head when the first one of them testified about the shirt swap. It's a transparently bogus story. My thought would have been that they feared someone had seen Coles in a white shirt or Davis in a yellow shirt. Any such sighting would be evidence that Coles, not Davis, was the shooter. So they concocted the story about the shirt swap to create plausible deniability. "Sure, my brother wasn't wearing the yellow shirt after the shooting, because I gave him a fresh one."

When the second one of them testified about the shirt swap, I would have hit the ceiling. I would have known then, without doubt, that they were lying. Coles said at trial that he gave the yellow shirt to Davis because that was the only other shirt he had at the house. Well that was certainly unfortunate for Davis. Recall that Coles had just been running for 15 to 20 minutes all the way from the crime scene to his sister's house.

Then it would hit me as odd that Coles kept shirts at his sister's house so that he could change after playing basketball, but the only shirt that was at her house was a red, white, and blue collared shirt. Seems like a limited and odd collection. Perhaps, I might think, he had taken all the others home with him to wash them.

Nope, that wouldn't be it. His sister said she washed the shirts for him. Remember? She washed the yellow shirt the next day, before giving it to the police. One wouldn't any unsightly incriminating evidence left on the shirt. How embarrassing!

The testimony that would have really done it for me, however, was when the sister said she laid out three shirts for her brother to change into. That's two more than her brother said were available. Why did Coles give Davis the sweaty, stinky t-shirt when he had just selected from a collection of three clean shirts his sister had laid out for him? 
I couldn't come up with a reasonable alternative explanation for the shirt swap. I figured they were lying, if for no other reason than they couldn't keep the number of shirts straight, but I couldn't figure out what they were tying to accomplish. I really jumped the shark when I suggested she washed the yellow shirt to remove incriminating evidence. I'll tell you why once I talk about how you guys also stumbled on the shirt swapping issue.

I'll begin with those of you who argued it must have gone down just as Coles and his sister said. That's a fair number of you, actually. It seems to me that you simply ignored the fact it couldn't have gone down like the two of them said, because the two of them said it differently. Coles said he gave Davis the yellow shirt because it was the only other one he had. His sister said she laid out three shirts for Coles. One or both of them is lying. That's the tell. You missed the tell.

You can try to argue that they may have lied about the number of shirts, but they didn't lie about the rest of the story. You can try it. The rest of us aren't buying. We shouldn't be executing someone based on the claims of people who provide perjurious testimony.

Reader Catherine Turley homed in on the shirt-swapping problem after Part 3, even before I wrote of it in Part 4. Here's a fraction of what she wrote:
if i believe coles was telling the truth about the shirt, and didn't do the killing, then he would have been knowingly implicating himself by giving the yellow shirt to troy (unless he's really stupid). if coles was telling the truth, but did do the killing, he was trying to set up his friend. if he was lying, and did do the killing, he was trying to implicate his friend. and if he was lying, and didn't do the killing, then he still has something to hide. looks like coles is guilty of something. i'll have to read over it again.
I'm smiling. I had to read her comment over again just as she had to read my writing over again. Anyway, she offered the thought that Coles was trying to implicate Troy by giving him the yellow shirt.

Reader Anonymous followed Reader Catherine Turley's comment with a similar thought, I think. He (or she) wrote in part:
A very confusing stage of events to say the least. My question is, it's stated that both Coles and his sister confess that when Davis arrived shirtless Coles gave troy his yellow shirt. The shirt he was wearing at the scene of the crime. I presume this acknowledgment is in the police records. Coles testified that Davis was in fact the shooter... he being an eye witness. He knows Troy just shot and possibly killed a cop and when troy asks him for a shirt to put on he gives him his crime scene garb. That's like giving him his identification. It's telling everyone that the guy in the yellow shirt killed the cop, the yellow shirt that the innocent Red Coles was wearing.
So at least I think Reader Anonymous agreed with Reader Catherine Turley.

Then I commented on my own post, complimenting them on their clear-headed thinking.
I like your analysis about why an innocent Sylvester Coles would not have given the actual shooter a shirt that would clear the shooter and increased the chance that he (Coles) would be implicated. Very clever.
Wow. What a dunderhead!

Then Reader Anonymous is back suggesting the yellow shirt was washed because it may have had gunshot residue on it so they had Davis wear it so that they could say any gunshot residue on the shirt came from Davis.  And I bought into that one as well, with the following brain-dead comment.
Good on you. I hadn't thought of the gunshot residue angle. I thought it strange they would invent a story about Davis putting on the shirt then soon taking it off, but I couldn't figure out why.

At least now, since your comment, I am aware of a viable hypothesis.
Finally, a different Reader Anonymous set us straight.
Why would there be gunshot residue on the yellow shirt? The one thing everyone agrees on is that the shooter was wearing a white shirt.
Thanks Reader Anonymous for the whack on the head. I needed that. There wouldn't be gunshot residue on the yellow shirt, and there wouldn't be DNA on the yellow shirt (as others suggested), and Davis wouldn't be incriminated if he was caught in the yellow shirt.

Here's the deal, as I now see it, assuming you still trust my ability to reason logically.

Either the shirt swapping story is true or it's not. (So far, so good.) If it's true, then Coles was wearing the yellow shirt. (I think I'm okay so far.) If it's false, then Coles was probably wearing the white shirt. (I'm getting a little nervous.) But Coles' sister gave the police a yellow shirt, one that she had recently washed. (Now I'm getting a bit more nervous.) It's not clear, however, that Coles had a yellow shirt. In the false shirt-swapping scenario, he didn't have a yellow shirt at the crime scene. Unless he coincidentally had a yellow t-shirt kept at his sister's house, they would have needed to get hold of one somehow. (Sweating bullets here.)

At first, they didn't realize they needed one, so they didn't mention the shirt swapping story in their initial interviews. But then, Larry Young later identified Coles as the man in the yellow shirt, after earlier identifying someone unrelated to the case. (I'm getting ready to go out on a limb.)  Furthermore a bunch of people had told the police that the guy in the white (or light-colored) shirt was the shooter.

It was at that point that Sylvester Coles realized he had two big problems. First, a number of people had seen him after the shooting in a white shirt. Second, he didn't have a yellow shirt. (It's too late to stop now.) So they simply went out and bought a nice yellow shirt. It looked new, so they aged it using a number of techniques, including washing it. (I wonder if they're buying it.) The story about Davis showing up wasn't necessary, it was just a nice twist. Claiming that Davis showed up without a shirt is all the incrimination they needed to provide to the police. Claiming they gave him the yellow shirt simply added color and realism to the story. They couldn't let him keep it, though, because they had to give a yellow shirt to the police to prove that Coles was wearing one that night.


So, finally, how do I assess our ability to make sense of the shirt-swapping tell?

Not so good. I think most of us were pretty careless in our logic on this point. I'm not sure we have it figured out yet.

I think I'll wrap this postmortem up with one more post. I think I'll write about how we attempted to figure out who was telling the truth: those who claimed coercion versus those who denied coercion.

Good night.