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Crime News Movies & TV

Which Real Life Death Row Case Inspired ‘Clemency’?

Chinonye Chukwu says her story of a conflicted prison warden was inspired by the death row case of Troy Davis.

By Aly Vander Hayden

“Clemency,” a new film by writer and director Chinonye Chukwu, chronicles the story of a death row prison warden who grapples with overseeing the execution of an inmate who fights to plead his innocence. 

While Chukwu met with several wardens, inmates and lawyers during her research, she said one particular case inspired the story of “Clemency” — that of death-row prisoner Troy Davis, a Georgia man who was executed in 2011 despite receiving support from Pope Benedict XVI and former president Jimmy Carter. 

“From the morning after Troy Davis was executed, I asked myself, if so many of us were navigating these complex emotions surrounding his execution — frustration, anger, sadness — what must it be like for the people whose livelihoods are tied to taking human life?” Chukwu said in an interview with Vanity Fair

Throughout "Clemency," the prison warden is portrayed by Alfre Woodard, and Aldis Hodge plays Anthony Woods, a man on death row for killing a cop. 

In the case that influenced the film, Davis was put to death by lethal injection for the 1989 murder of an off-duty police officer, 27-year-old Mark MacPhail, who was gunned down at a Burger King parking lot in Savannah.  

At the time, MacPhail was working as a security guard for the restaurant and had responded to a disturbance between Davis and others in the lot. MacPhail ordered the group to halt, and when Davis fled the scene, he chased after him.  

Davis then looked over his shoulder and shot the officer multiple times, according to a press release from the Georgia Attorney General. He died of gunshot wounds before emergency responders arrived at the scene, and Davis took off to Atlanta, where he surrendered to authorities four days later. 

During the investigation, police discovered that Davis had attended a party prior to the shooting. There, he opened fire on a car filled with several men, including Michael Cooper, who was shot in the face but survived. A ballistics expert later testified that the bullet recovered from the MacPhail murder matched the type used in Cooper’s shooting, said the Georgia Attorney General.  

The murder weapon was never recovered. 

Troy Anthony Davis Ap

Multiple witnesses testified that Davis had confessed to the murder, and others identified him as the one who killed MacPhail. At trial, Davis admitted to being present at the scene, but he denied having anything to do with the shooting. 

The jury found him guilty of malice murder, obstruction of a law enforcement officer, two counts of aggravated assault and possession of firearm during the commission of a felony. He was sentenced to death. 

During Davis’ incarceration, seven of the nine witnesses either contradicted or recanted their testimony against him. While the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a Savannah District Court to review the case in 2009, it was ruled that the new evidence did "not require the reversal of the jury's judgment,” reported CNN

Davis’ execution date was set for Sept. 21, 2011, and the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole denied his request for clemency, even though his case garnered international attention.  

Former president Jimmy Carter, South African anti-apartheid leader Desmond Tutu, 51 members of Congress and Pope Benedict XVI all voiced their support in halting the execution, and Amnesty International told CNN that “killing a man under this enormous cloud of doubt is horrific and amounts to a catastrophic failure of the justice system.” 

On the day of his execution, Davis refused a last meal and continued to proclaim his innocence, telling MacPhail’s family that he had nothing to do with the officer’s murder and did not have a gun at the scene. 

“I did not personally kill your son, father, brother,” he said, according to The New York Times. “All I can ask is that you look deeper into this case so you really can finally see the truth.” 

Davis also addressed his supporters and family, urging them to “keep the faith.” 

He died at 11:08 p.m.  

Davis’ funeral was attended by more than 1,000 people, counting dozens of activists and supporters.  

Former NAACP president Benjamin Jealous spoke at the service, saying, “Troy's last words that night were he told us to keep fighting until his name is cleared in Georgia. But most important, keep fighting until the death penalty is abolished and this can never be done to anyone else." 

“Clemency” premieres in theaters on Dec. 27, 2019. 

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