II. Death Row
The profound moral question is not, ‘Do they deserve to die?’ but ‘Do we deserve to kill them?’
– Helen Prejean
Today, November 9, 2008, was the second time my mother and I had been to death row. It was Priya’s first. As Troy began his story, we were all silent. The other inmates hushed even though they couldn’t hear us, as if they knew what was to follow. Troy’s words were soft-spoken but firm.
This was back in August of 1989, the night of the shooting. My mama warned me not to go out that night, but I went anyway since I knew this was the last time to have fun before I went to Atlanta the next morning to interview for a construction job. Even though I was twenty years old and no longer a kid, I still thought like a kid. And I’m still paying the price for not listening to my mom.
I walked past a house where a party was going on. I asked a guy standing outside about the party, and he invited me in. When Redd Coles walked in, the atmosphere changed instantly. This guy was the real deal. Everyone wanted to party with him. But soon after, I heard gunshots coming from a nearby house. I told my friends we should leave, and we soon left the party. Then we decided to look for a pool hall, but we had to find a place that was open this late. There was one pool hall nearby, but it was in a white neighborhood and they would harass us. Then I remembered there was one that was open until 2:00 AM near Yamacraw, which wasn’t too far. When I got there, I was surprised to see Redd Coles there as well, playing pool with another guy.
“Didn’t I just see you somewhere?” Redd asked me.
“Yeah, I was just at the party a little while ago.” Then I said, “I’ll take next.”
Redd beat the guy he was playing, so Redd and I started playing the next game. After we broke, he went outside and I made my shot. I was waiting for him, but he was still outside. I went outside and said, “Redd, come on, let’s finish our game.” The owner of the pool hall started yelling at me to not take his pool stick outside. I came back and put it away, and then went outside.
Redd was threatening a homeless man, saying things like “I’ll kill you!” to him. He looked to the side for one moment and then—Wham! Redd hit him with his gun.
I shouted, “Redd, what are you doing to this guy? Stop this!”
“Shut the fuck up! Do you want some of this too?” he said, turning toward me and holding up the gun.
I retreated a bit and decided to leave.
Meanwhile, the homeless man had gone to the Burger King nearby in order to get attention after Redd hit him. While I was walking away, I heard gunshots, which I later found out was Officer MacPhail being shot. But I thought Redd was shooting at me, so I ran to my friends and then ran to the car to get away as fast as I could. Before I left, I saw Redd clutching his chest, and I thought he had been shot.
I found out that the first shooting that I heard earlier at the party had been the shooting of Michael Cooper. Michael Cooper’s friends went and dropped him at the hospital, and then picked up some guns and came back and started a drive-by retaliation. They shot the windows and the house and shot one person in the leg. Someone then told me that a cop had been shot. I thought back to Redd, and I thought he had been shot. I got back in the car with my friends and we headed back near Yamacraw. This was a stupid thing to do . . . stupid in hindsight, to go back to the place where I thought Redd had shot at me.
The place was swarming with police officers. They were going door-to-door and breaking down every door. I was with someone who went to Redd’s house.
Redd said, “What the fuck are you doing here?”
I just said, “I’m here with a friend. Man, Redd, the cops are all over this place. You’re gonna get caught.”
“Shut up! I gotta change out of these clothes.” He asked his sister if there were any clothes, and she told him there were some upstairs, so he went upstairs and changed. Then he came down and said, “Give me your shirt.” I saw that he was still holding a gun in his hand, so I just took my shirt off and gave it to him. “Now get the fuck out of here.”
I was scared and didn’t want to get involved in that mess, so I went home and acted as if nothing happened. The next day, I went to Atlanta for my job interview. Later that day, my mother called me.
“Troy, the police are looking for you. A police officer was murdered yesterday. Don’t lie to me Troy. Did you do it?”
“No, I did not.”
“You’re a wanted man.”
“I’m coming home.”
“No, you can’t, Troy! The police have shoot-to-kill orders on you!”
“This is ridiculous. I’m coming home!”
“Don’t you get it? If they see you, they will kill you. Stay in Atlanta.”
I then called my father, but he didn’t pick up. I called my aunt, but she didn’t pick up either. I got a call from my father a bit later, but it was really brief and at the end he said, “And stop tap dancing on my phone!” He hung up right after that, and it took me some time to realize that this was his way of telling me that all of their phones were tapped, which was why they weren’t picking up. The police were rounding up black men in Savannah, threatening them and demanding information on me.
Eventually, I turned myself in for my own safety. I knew I was innocent, so I thought if I turned myself in I could tell the police what happened and they’d let me go. Martina and two black men, one who worked for Jesse Jackson and the other who was a police Chaplain, picked me up and drove me back to Savannah. The deal was that the police would quietly take me into the station. But they broke their promise, and instead they paraded me in front of the station where all the media could see. They kept talking about how they “captured” me, even though I turned myself in. The two black men got a reward for aiding in my capture. When I walked into the station, the white officers said, “We’ll blow your brains out, nigger.”
They put me in isolation, saying it was for my own safety. There were bugs everywhere. Some of the guards tried to poison me and called me nigger. They tried to use strip searches as an excuse to rape me. That was when I started praying. God had always been important in my family, but as I grew up I kind of lost my way and I didn’t pray regularly or read the Bible much. But when I was alone, in that cell, accused of murdering a man I had never even met, I began to pray. At trial, people acted like I couldn’t wear the cross around my neck, like I wasn’t worthy of God’s love. But I still had faith because I was an innocent man. And when I was convicted and they sent me here, I still believed God would eventually set me free.
That’s what happened. That’s the truth.