COLUMBUS, Ga. — At 10:57 that September night, the Georgia attorney general’s office notified Anneliese MacPhail that the intravenous needle was in Troy Davis’ arm.
MacPhail could not believe what she was hearing, not after a legal odyssey that prompted cries of injustice from celebrities, the pope and former U.S. presidents.
Her phone rang again 13 minutes later. This time, she heard Davis was dead.
“It’s over,” she said.
Davis’ execution ended 22 all-consuming years of waiting to see the man she believed was her son’s killer pay for his crime.
Yet it has not brought her the peace she sought ever since an earlier phone call roused her from bed on a sultry August night with news that her son Mark had been shot to death.
Six months after the spectacle of the Davis execution, MacPhail is still haunted by loss. And she is still hounded by those who blame her family for putting to death a man whose guilt was widely questioned.
“You have blood on your hands,” Davis’ supporters tell her through phone calls and letters. He’d become a poster child for anti-death penalty activists. MacPhail knows worse has been said about her on the Internet.
“This old b—h doesn’t know what going on,” said one comment posted on YouTube. “I hope you’re happy ’cause your son’s killer is still free. Justice wasn’t served.”
MacPhail says she is thankful for her online illiteracy, that she doesn’t even own a computer. But after all this time, she still seethes that Davis is perceived as the one who was wronged.
“It bothers me. I am the victim here,” she says. “I lost my son. My grandchildren don’t have any memories of their father.
“I don’t have the peace yet that I was hoping for.”
In her Columbus, Georgia, home, surrounded by family mementos, MacPhail lives the life of a woman made weary by many lifetimes of tragedy.
“I say we all have to pay a bill. I hope I have paid enough,” she says.
As a little girl in her native Germany, she survived the bombing of Berlin by rushing to the basement of her building, clutching her younger siblings by their hands. As a young woman, she bore the pain of losing her first-born child to double pneumonia. David was only 3 months old.
The baby’s death crumbled her first marriage. She found a man who made her happy and married again. The Army helicopter pilot left twice for tours of Vietnam and returned home safe. But several years later, he too, died after a massive heart attack.
MacPhail moved her five children to this house in Columbus to finish raising them by herself. The military played big part in her life and she wanted to be near Fort Benning.
The ranch-style house gives away its age; MacPhail has spent 37 years here. Her husband never lived here. Neither did David. But she can see her youngest son Mark in this house, how he played with his brother Bill — the two were inseparable. How she tried to fatten his skinny frame.
Mauschen, she called him, meaning little mouse in German.
He graduated from Columbus High School and joined the military, just like his father and older brothers. He was going to join the Columbus police force but chose Savannah instead because his wife wanted to be closer to her family.
Mark Allen MacPhail was Officer 212 in the Savannah Police Department, the number emblazoned on his police badge. His mother keeps the glistening piece of chrome with her always, tucked in a compartment of her handbag.
Some day, she knows, another MacPhail may wear a Savannah police badge. It’s another twist of fate she has yet to embrace.
A hole in her heart
Anne MacPhail walks over to the kitchen, its dark wood cabinetry decidedly 1970s. She opens a drawer near the sink, in the spot known as Mark’s corner — that’s where her youngest son always stood, hands resting about him on the countertop.
She takes out a cigarette from a pack of Marlboro Lights 100s. She smoked two packs a day after Mark was killed. Now it’s far less, but she needs them more when she’s talking about Mark, as though they are a substitute for tears.
She’s never been an emotional person — people have told her she fits perfectly the stereotype of a tough German. She talks without crying about how she saw her son’s bullet-pocked uniform and how the embalmer did a good job putting Mark back together after his killer shot him in the face.
It’s not because it was so long ago. The hole in her heart is just as big today, the emptiness never goes away. Any mother who has put a child in the grave can understand, she says.
She was almost as steely back then, in the early hours of August 19, 1989. She had been out for dinner and drinks with friends. She returned home restless but finally got herself to bed. An hour and a half later, the phone woke her up. It was her son Bill.
“Mark got shot,” he said.
“How bad is it?” she asked.
“No, he isn’t.”
She turned on all the lights. She wanted to drive to Savannah immediately.
Mark had been working off-duty as a security guard for a downtown Greyhound Bus station connected to a Burger King. He ran over to a scuffle involving Larry Young, a homeless man. He was shot before he could draw his gun, and after he fell to the ground, he was shot again.
Against the wishes of her family, Anne MacPhail asked a police officer to take her to the parking lot where her son fell. Later, at the funeral home, she opened her son’s casket. She had to see her mauschen one last time to believe he was gone.
Four days later, a line of cars in MacPhail’s funeral procession stretched from Savannah’s Trinity Lutheran Church to Hillcrest Abbey West Cemetery. Police officers came from across the nation. Mark’s older brothers wore their military uniforms.
MacPhail kept thinking of the last time she saw Mark, at a family gathering at her house on July 7, his birthday. He stayed up late with her at the kitchen table, cradling his newborn son in his arms. They talked about how proud his father, Bill, would have been.
If only Bill could have seen Mark in his Army uniform. He had even made it through Ranger school, the Army’s toughest test of strength and endurance. Now, she was burying him at age 27.
At the cemetery, she noticed two police cars speed away. She learned that Troy Davis, the target of a manhunt, had turned himself in to police, although he maintained his innocence.
That was the first sense of relief MacPhail felt since learning of her son’s death.
‘I knew he did it’
It took almost two years to put Davis on trial. Once it began, MacPhail sat in the courthouse every day.
The prosecution called nine witnesses whose testimony, they said, proved beyond a doubt that Davis was the killer. The witnesses said a man wearing a white T-shirt pistol-whipped Young, the homeless man, and then shot MacPhail before fleeing.
Perhaps most damning was the testimony of Young’s girlfriend, Harriet Murray, who said a man wearing a white T-shirt shot MacPhail. After he fell, the man shot him two or three more times, Murray testified.
Anne MacPhail saw Murray point to Davis in the courtroom, identifying him as the person wearing the white shirt.
“He had a little smile on his face, a little smirky-like smile” the night of the shooting, Murray said about Davis.
MacPhail thought Davis had a smirk on his face during his trial and in the mug shot the media used over and over. She could never put it out of her mind.
No fingerprints or DNA evidence implicated Davis. Investigators did not find a murder weapon.
A Georgia Bureau of Investigation expert linked shell casings in the MacPhail shooting to shells found at another, non-fatal shooting a few hours earlier. A firearms examiner said the .38-caliber shell casings appeared to have come from the same gun, though he could not be certain.
Jurors convicted Davis of both shootings. They sentenced him to die for killing Mark MacPhail.
Anne MacPhail was convinced the right man was being punished.
Why did he flee Savannah after the killing? Why did his mother wash his bloodied shirt before police got to her house? she asked.
“I knew he did it,” she says. “When it all came out, there was no doubt left in my mind.”
She knew Davis would be afforded a round of appeals, but what she did not know in 1991 was that it would take more than two decades to put him to death and that it would be a grueling wait for her family.
For many of those years, MacPhail did not speak publicly about her son’s killing. She just wanted to see justice done.
From the moment of his conviction, two stories emerged of the MacPhail murder: one that said adequate evidence existed to prove Davis was guilty and another that said there was too much doubt to execute him.
Davis’ sister, Martina Correia, spearheaded a campaign to save her brother’s life. She said Davis did not have a chance at a fair trial given all the publicity around the case.
Several witnesses said they had been coerced into testifying. Later, they signed affidavits saying they were not so sure of what they had seen that night.
Correia, suffering from breast cancer, went on fighting for the brother she believed innocent. “How can they let my brother die if there is a sliver of doubt that he did not pull the trigger?” she asked.
The two families ran into each other at court hearings and clemency board meetings. One time, Correia asked to speak with Anne MacPhail. MacPhail refused. She understood the family’s desperation but she had nothing to say to Correia — or to anyone else.
For many years, she kept her grief and her anger inside her. The man who prosecuted Davis, Spencer Lawton, also remained silent, compelled, he said, by the canons of legal ethics not to speak about a pending case.
Increasingly, MacPhail felt Davis’ side of the story won out in the court of public opinion.
Correia’s struggle transcended her brother to became a crusade against capital punishment in America.
Celebrities, Nobel laureates and ex-presidents spoke on Troy Davis’ behalf. Amnesty International and the NAACP took on his cause. Davis became a cause celebre for anti-death penalty advocates who said the case epitomized a racially prejudiced judicial system in the South.
“The case of Troy Davis was corrupted by implications of racism from the very beginning — a black man accused of killing a white police officer, prosecuted by a district attorney in the Georgia county that has produced one-third of the state’s exonerations and 40 percent of its death row exonerations,” the American Civil Liberties Union said.
Every time the governor signed a death warrant for Davis, his supporters came out to protest. “I am Troy Davis” became a rallying cry, a Facebook avatar.
They blamed the MacPhail family for the pending execution of possibly an innocent man.
“I didn’t sentence him to die,” MacPhail says. “He was found guilty and that was the state — not me.”
Most of all, she resented that her son was forgotten in the narrative of the case.
“It was always poor Troy Davis,” MacPhail says. “There was never anything about Mark, his wife and the babies he left behind.”
‘I wanted him to die’
The photographs in MacPhail’s home tell the story of a close-knit family dedicated to each other and to their nation. Her husband, her boys, all in uniform.
From a wall in the living room, she takes down a framed picture of Mark in a T-shirt and a floppy cap. She can’t stand that dust has collected on it and takes it to the sink to wipe it down.
“There you go, my son,” she says, hanging it back up next to a tribute to Mark.
Last September, her son Bill, daughter Kathy and grandson Mark Jr. were at the prison in Jackson, Georgia, to witness Davis’ execution. Anne MacPhail stayed home. She didn’t need to watch a man die. She’d seen enough death for a lifetime.
“I wanted him to die. That’s true,” she says. “But to see it? That did not give me any satisfaction.”
During Davis’ 22 years on Death Row, a court stayed his execution four times. Again, this time, the Supreme Court delayed the 7 p.m. execution to weigh last-minute defense arguments.
MacPhail didn’t know what to think. Would they put it off again? How many more months, years would this go on?
Then at 11:08 p.m., with a frenzy of journalists and cameras parked in her front yard, the phone rang.
“Are you sure?” she asked.
“Yes,” came the answer.
Troy Davis was dead.
At that moment, she says, she felt neither joy nor vindication. She simply thought she would finally have the peace she had sought as a mother.
Never happy, only content
On an unseasonably warm winter’s day, MacPhail thinks of what befell the Davis family. Virginia Davis died in April, before her son’s execution. Correia said she died of a broken heart.
“I thought if I had a son like that I would die of a broken heart, too,” MacPhail says.
She takes stock of the Davis’ family’s battle to save him from death. Maybe Troy Davis really believed he was innocent after all those years of claiming so, she says. He had proclaimed it again moments before his death.
“I’d like to address the MacPhail family,” he said before lethal substances began to flow through his veins. “Let you know despite the situation you are in, I’m not the one who personally killed your son, your father, your brother. I am innocent.
“The incident that happened that night is not my fault,” he said. “I did not have a gun. All I can ask … is that you look deeper into this case so that you really can finally see the truth.”
MacPhail was unmoved.
She doesn’t understand why Davis’ supporters won’t just leave her be. She still gets phone calls and letters that make her angry.
Now 78, she tries to lead a quiet life. She watches “General Hospital” on television and belongs to a coffee klatch. After all those years of media coverage, everyone knows who she is: the mother of Mark MacPhail.
They know her address, her telephone number. Police keep tabs on her. Maj. Randy Robertson of the Muscogee County Sheriff’s Department has been by her side for the past seven years, ever since the Davis case began getting traction in the courts and the media.
She doesn’t get to see her 12 grandchildren or 10 great-grandchildren often — those family get-togethers are tough when everyone is so spread apart. Mark MacPhail’s widow, Joan, moved to Texas with her daughter, Madison, and son, Mark Jr.
After everything, Anne MacPhail cannot forgive Davis for taking away her son. She says she can never be happy, only content with what life has given her.
Mark Jr., 22, recently returned to Savannah to attend Armstrong Atlantic State University. He wanted to go to college in a town where he had family.
He looks so much like his father, Anne MacPhail says. Even sounds like him.
He was only seven weeks old when his father died. He has not even memories to cherish. But MacPhail learned recently that her grandson wants to be just like his father. He plans to join the Savannah police force.
It is terrifying to think that her grandson will wear the uniform and roam the same streets on which her son was killed. But MacPhail won’t try to stop him. She will keep talking to Mark, to the photo she keeps by her bed.
“The biggest troublemakers are all gone but I’m still hurting because I still miss Mark,” she says. “He was my baby.”
She knows now that it will never be over.