Troy Davis: Will Georgia Execute an Innocent Man This Week?

This column originally appeared via SojournersGod’s Politics blog on Friday, September 16:

By Maurice Possley

“Perhaps the bleakest fact of all is that the death penalty is imposed not only in a freakish and discriminatory manner, but also in some cases upon defendants who are actually innocent.”
U.S. Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., 1994

On Monday (Sept. 19), the five members of the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles will meet to consider whether to commute the death sentence of Troy Davis to life in prison or allow him to be executed on Sept. 21.

With more than 1,260 men and women executed in the United States since the death penalty was restored more 30 years ago, pardon boards across this country have routinely addressed pleas for clemency and routinely have rejected them, allowing executions to go forward.

Indeed, as Davis’ case has becoming increasingly more public, the machinery of death moves on in other parts of the country.

On Thursday, U.S. Supreme Court ordered a last-minute stay that blocked the execution in Texas 0f Duane Buck, within hours of his walk to the execution chamber. The next scheduled execution in Texas is Sept. 20 for Cleve Foster, who was convicted of murdering a woman.

On Sept. 21 — the day Davis is now set to die — Lawrence Brewer is scheduled to be executed in Texas for the infamous dragging death of James Byrd Jr.

And on Sept. 22, Derrick Mason is to be executed in Alabama — although the judge who imposed death sentence on Mason now says he made a mistake and believes the death sentence should be commuted to life in prison without parole.

Other than the case of Brewer, notorious because he was one of three white men who killed a black man in particularly cruel and gruesome fashion, it’s unlikely that most of the general public has been particularly aware of the cases of Buck, Foster or Mason.

So what makes the Davis case stand out from most other death penalty cases?

Serious doubt.

Not about whether the death penalty is the appropriate punishment for Davis or has been correctly applied.

The doubt raised in Davis’ case is whether he committed the crime at all. And those questions about his guilt have prompted hundreds of thousands of people to raise their voices in opposition to his execution, most recently former FBI Director William Sessions who, in an op-ed in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Friday, called on the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to commute Davis’ sentence to life in prison.

Over the last 30 years, most death penalty cases have worked their way through the courts and into the execution chamber with little publicity, notoriety or public outcry, beyond that of the people directly affected by the crime — relatives and survivors of the victims, family members of the accused and the assorted participants in the legal system, such as judges, police officers, defense attorneys and prosecutors.

From time to time, however, certain cases have taken on a more dynamic persona. Karla Faye Tucker was executed in 1998 — the first woman to be put to death in Texas — amidst national and international pleas for clemency largely based on her gender and conversion to Christianity.

Similarly, Stanley “Tookie” Williams engendered a groundswell of opposition to his 2005 execution in California because of the positive work he had done after being convicted in the murders of four people. While in prison, Williams wrote children’s books with anti-gang and anti-violence themes.

Still, the issue in Tucker and Williams’ cases was rehabilitation, not innocence.

Perhaps the last high-profile case that involved serious claims of innocence was that of Gary Graham, who was executed in Texas in 2000 despite new evidence suggesting that the sole eyewitness who identified him was wrong.

There have been 1,267 executions in the United States since the death penalty was re-instated in 1976, after having been struck down in 1972 by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The death penalty returned in 1977 when Gary Gilmore was executed by a firing squad in Utah.

Sine the reinstatement of the death penalty 34 years ago, 138 people have been released from Death Row after their innocence was established or their guilt could no longer be proved.

At the same time, serious questions have been raised about the guilt of a number of defendants who were executed, including Cameron Todd Willingham, Carlos DeLuna and Ruben Cantu in Texas, Leo Jones in Florida, and Larry Griffin in Missouri.

There are now more than 3,200 men and women on death row in the United States and the population continues to grow, although at a much reduced rate over the past 10 years.

The number of states that execute has dropped by three, with New Mexico, New Jersey and Illinois outlawing the death penalty.

Executions nationally have dropped gradually over the last several years—from a high of 98 in 1999. There were 46 executions in 2010 and so far in 2011, there have been 33.

“The decline is a breakthrough in the public’s consciousness that mistakes are made and that it’s hard to tell in which ones the mistakes mean innocence,” says Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.

Davis was convicted in 1991 of the 1989 shooting death of an off-duty Savannah police officer who was working as a security guard in a shopping center. Davis was found guilty and sentenced to death on the basis of witnesses and informants.

There was no physical evidence linking him to the crime.

Over time — and three postponed executions — Davis’ defense has produced evidence that six of the nine witnesses have recanted their testimony. Still it was not enough to persuade a Georgia court to grant him a new trial.

Davis has received support from such influential forces as Pope Benedict XVI, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former President Jimmy Carter as well as from more than 500,000 people who have signed petitions urging the pardons board to spare his life.

Davis is no stranger to the pardons board — he has appeared before it twice before. But if there is a breath of hope for Davis, it is that the five-member pardons board has three new members who have not voted on his case before.

He needs three votes for his death sentence to be commuted to life without parole. Such a vote would not mean his immediate release. But it would give his defense team more time to continue their search for evidence of his innocence.

When the board convenes, they will have Davis’ life in their hands. And as they consider whether to send Davis to the execution chamber, perhaps they should consider the case of Earl Washington Jr.

Washington was sentenced to death in Virginia in 1984. Ten years later, when preliminary DNA tests raised doubts about his guilt, then-Gov. Douglas Wilder commuted the death sentenced to life without parole.

In 2000, 16 years after Washington was convicted, more sophisticated DNA tests exonerated him and he was released.

Because he was still alive.

MoPo on HITCH in the Toronto Star

July 01, 2011

By Maurice Possley

More than 40 years ago, a Swift Current, Sask. man who dreamed of opening a Nazi memorabilia museum thought he had pulled off the ultimate coup in buying the gold-plated pistol that Adolf Hitler used to commit suicide.

In 1968, Andrew Wright told the local newspaper that the gun — purchased from a dealer in Cleveland — would “put Swift Current on the map. There are hundreds of collectors in the United States who have never seen it and they will come up.”

Not only did Wright misjudge the attention he expected (the horde of curiosity seekers never materialized), but he was very wrong about the provenance of the gun — a gold-plated, 7.65 Walther semi-automatic pistol with Hitler’s initials inlaid in gold on the ivory grips.

In fact, the truth is far more dramatic.

As John Woodbridge and I recount in our newly released book, Hitler in the Crosshairs: A GI’s Story of Courage and Faith, the pistol was taken by an American soldier during a dramatic attempt to capture or kill the dictator in Munich in the waning days of the war.

This new saga is the story of the soldier, Ira “Teen” Palm, a native of Mount Vernon, N.Y., and how he came to cross paths with Rupprecht Gerngross, a German soldier who not only bravely engineered a brief revolt of German soldiers and citizens in Munich, but at one point attempted to assassinate Hitler himself.

A first lieutenant in the U.S. Army who earned numerous medals for valour under fire, Palm had landed on the shore of France in 1944 and fought his way into the heart of Germany, reaching the outskirts of Munich in late April 1945. As Soviet forces encircled Berlin and the Allied armies approached Munich, what was then called “the greatest manhunt in history” was on — the search for Hitler.

In a striking parallel to the search for Osama bin Laden, American leaders believed that even if the entirety of Germany was conquered, the war might never end as long as Hitler remained alive. Intelligence at the time suggested that Hitler was amassing troops and weapons in the Bavarian Alps — the Great Redoubt — where he would regroup and continue to wage war.

Gerngross, a German soldier who headed an interpreter unit in Munich, had been gathering weapons and recruiting soldiers and citizens to stage an uprising against the Nazis in Munich in an attempt to prevent the total destruction of the city, a fate suffered by so many great German centres.

Gerngross had been inspired to oppose the Nazis years earlier when he happened to see a group of Jews being executed by German soldiers. He realized that this was not the Germany he loved and resolved to oppose the Nazi regime.

In 1944, Gerngross learned that Hitler planned to travel through Munich by car and would be accompanied by an aide who lived across the street from Gerngross. He speculated the aide would stop to see his family, and so Gerngross decided to try to kill Hitler.

On the day Hitler was to arrive, Gerngross sat in the attic of his home with a rifle and waited until Hitler’s car arrived. Anxiously, he watched as the aide went inside briefly and then came back out. His young daughter skipped down the sidewalk and Hitler’s car door opened and a man — it had to be Hitler — stepped out and knelt down to embrace the girl.

Gerngross trained the crosshairs on the back of the girl’s head, waiting for the moment when she would step back and he could pull the trigger. Suddenly, the aide came out of the house and Hitler pulled away and vanished into the car.

The failed attempt only propelled Gerngross more forcefully. In 1945, an American flyer who had survived when his plane was shot down and who later escaped a Germany POW camp was being smuggled back to the Allies through the opposition underground in Munich. Gerngross recruited the flyer to ask the Allies to stop bombing Munich, so that the uprising could begin.

At the same time, Palm volunteered to lead a group of soldiers — with the help of Gerngross’s men — undercover into Munich to capture or kill Hitler.

Palm and his men did break into Hitler’s apartment, but the dictator was not there. Before they left, Palm took the gold-plated pistol from Hitler’s desk.

Gerngross’s uprising was short-lived, but he achieved his goal — Munich, though badly damaged, did not suffer total annihilation.

After the war, Palm, who was wounded slightly as he fought his way out of Munich, gave the pistol to Charles Woodbridge, his close friend and pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Ga. The gun was later stolen and disappeared until it made national news in 1966 when a Cleveland gun dealer announced it was for sale.

Wright learned of the gun when a photograph of it appeared on the cover of Argosy magazine. He and his wife drove to Cleveland, where they purchased numerous pieces of Nazi memorabilia, including the pistol, which had been a gift to Hitler on his 50th birthday in 1939 from the Walther family, manufacturers of hundreds of thousands of weapons.

At the time, Wright was sure that the gun would be the centrepiece of his museum. He said the pistol was the most sought-after prize in gun-collecting circles.

But by 1987, his dream that Swift Current would be a magnet for admirers of Nazi memorabilia was still just that — a dream. And so the gun was sold at auction for what was then the highest price ever paid for an item of military memorabilia — $114,000 — to a purchaser whose identity was not revealed.

The gun has since changed hands several times. An Australian, Warren Anderson, owned it for a time. It was later sold to someone on the West Coast of the United States who has asked to remain unnamed.

When Wright purchased the gun, he believed it was Hitler’s suicide weapon because of reports that there was blood under the grips. The actual weapon that Hitler used to kill himself in his bunker in Berlin has been proven to be a much different pistol.

Which leads one to wonder — just whose blood is under the grips of this pistol? Could it in fact be the blood of Ira Palm — the man who volunteered to take out Hitler?

The mystery continues.

Maurice Possley, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist formerly with the Chicago Tribune, is an investigator and researcher for the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University School of Law.

HITCH in the Salisbury (NC) Post

Teen Palm in a 1943 photo from the book.

World War II story has personal touch

By Deirdre Parker Smith

dp1@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — “Hitler in the Crosshairs” reveals what the authors believe is new information about a plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler during World War II.

It also tells some of the story of Ira “Teen” Palm, a man who once lived in Salisbury and rose through the ranks to eventually work at the Pentagon.

And it is a story about Hitler’s gold-plated pistol, which, the authors say, Teen Palm took from Hitler’s office in a raid of his apartment in Munich.

Palm was a sensitive, self-doubting musician when World War II started. But once he completed his training and was shipped to Europe, he blossomed into a leader under the most difficult of conditions.

Author Woodbridge is the son of Charles Woodbridge, who was once pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Salisbury. Palm, rediscovering his faith, became one of Charles’ best friends, due to the minister’s preaching and teaching.

Palm met Helen Raney of Granite Quarry and later married her. The couple spent much time in Bible study, and in their long years in the military, shared their faith with many soldiers and others.

So, while telling the story of World War II and the attempt on Hitler’s life, the authors use many of Palm’s letters to his wife, his pastor and others to show his ardent faith in God. We learn little about the war through the letters — in those days, mail was heavily censored by the military, and Palm was careful never to divulge exactly where he was or what he was doing.

Suffice it to say he was in some of the bloodiest, most dangerous battles of the war. Not once, but twice he was standing next to his commander when the commander was gunned down.

READ THE REST OF THE ARTICLE HERE.

John Pearson on HITCH and “Finding Your Unique Story Angle”

Finding Your Unique Story Angle

By John Pearson/John Pearson Associates

It’s summer here in North America—so I’m always looking for “lighter” reading, hopefully with some redeeming leadership and management insights.

I found one! Maurice Possley, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, has taken co-author John Woodbridge’s story and fashioned a fascinating true story line about Hitler, a young singer/sax player/solder, an influential pastor, in-the-trenches WWII battles (the kind that create legends and heroes), new information on the German resistance movement, and a gold-plated pistol with links to the Fuehrer himself.

I could be biased because I’ve met Possley multiple times and thoroughly enjoyed his 2001 book, a true account, Everybody Pays: Two Men, One Murder and the Price of Truth, with co-author Rick Kogan.

Possley won a Pulitzer in 2008 for Investigative Reporting at the Chicago Tribune. He has now applied those same instincts and street smarts to this remarkable true story, Hitler in the Crosshairs: A GI’s Story of Courage and Faith. Blend Possley with co-author John Woodbridge’s experience as Research Professor of Church History and Christian Thought at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, visiting prof at Northwestern University and the University of Paris, France, and you have the makings of a historically accurate, WWII page-turner.

I was struck with the story line—and the creativity of it. The authors threaded this true account around every twist and turn with both skill and drama. Some organizations, I’ve noticed, take an absolutely amazing story line of God at work and then dumb it down to unimaginable nothingness. Boring. Bored. Clunk!

Not this story! It’s historical—with new stuff. Inspirational—with disappointment and death. Separation—but with life-breathing love letters. Maturity and humility—perhaps softened by sadness. And the stunning beauty and impact of integrity—growing the fruits of faithfulness, generation after generation. Oh…and then there’s the pistol.

The story line: ingenious. The redeeming insight: maybe the form will rub off on your organization as you strategize how to tell your story in more compelling ways.

To order this book from Amazon, click on the title for Hitler in the Crosshairs: A GI’s Story of Courage and Faith, by John Woodbridge and Maurice Possley.


Hitler in the Crosshairs & Teen Palm in Mount Vernon NY

 

Mount Vernon native snared Hitler’s pistol in raid

By Ned P. Rauch

MOUNT VERNON — It was the spring of 1945 and Lt. Ira “Teen” Palm, Mount Vernon High School class of ’32, was standing in Adolf Hitler’s Munich apartment.

Palm and his raiding party had just kicked in the apartment’s front door, hoping to find Hitler and hasten the war’s end.

Instead they found the place deserted, forcing Palm to lead a mad dash through the city, back to the safety of the American lines.

But Palm would not make that run empty-handed. Opening the drawers of the desk in front of him, he grabbed some stationery and an ivory-handled, gold-plated pistol bearing a set of infamous initials: AH.

Palm’s story — previously unknown even to family — is told in “Hitler in the Crosshairs,” a new book by John Woodbridge and Maurice Possley, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.

READ THE REST OF THE ARTICLE HERE.

MoPo tells the HITCH story on WBEZ (NPR) in Chicago

 

June 6, 2011 marks the 67th anniversary of the Allied Invasion of Normandy. The fighting that ensued took many twists and turns. Those who survived came home with battle scars, memories good and bad and in some cases souvenirs. One was a gun believed to have belonged to Adolf Hitler himself.

When local history professor John Woodbridge saw a TV story detailing the gun’s auction he had a flashback of sorts-his father had shown him the gun as a child.

In Hitler in the Crosshairs: A GI’s Story of Courage and Faith, Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Maurice Possley and Woodbridge tell the story behind the gun. Woodbridge and Possley recently spoke to Eight Forty-Eight’s Alison Cuddy about the book.

 

Listen to Maury’s interview HERE.

MoPo on HITCH in the Sunday NY Post

The Fuhrer with the golden gun

By MAURICE POSSLEY

New York Post Updated: Sun., Jun. 5, 2011, 3:25 AM

On April 20, 1939, Germany’s Nazi Party celebrated Adolf Hitler’s 50th birthday with an orgy of gift-giving and a display of military firepower unparalleled in the history of the world.

For four hours, the dictator stood before a gilded chair upholstered in red reviewing thousands of men and weapons parading down the Avenue of Splendor amidst the cheers of tens of thousands of enthralled onlookers. Fighter planes thundered overhead. Tanks rumbled past.

Nearby, in the German Chancellery, tables groaned under the weight of scores of gifts. There were marble statues, a collection of letters of Frederick the Great, tapestries, antiques, paintings and original scores of Hitler’s favorite composer, Richard Wagner.

Among these many treasures was a case containing a gold-plated semiautomatic pistol. Hitler’s initials were inlaid with gold on the ivory grips. This was the gift of Carl Walther, whose family made hundreds of thousands of weapons sold worldwide. Of all his gifts, Hitler, who had a fondness for firearms, particularly prized the pistol and, after the day’s festivities, had the pistol shipped to Munich, where he kept it in a desk drawer in his apartment.

Six years later, in the waning days of World War II, the pistol would begin a journey of mystery that now spans more than 65 years.

The story begins in the pre-dawn hours of April 29, 1945, when US Army soldier Ira “Teen” Palm led a small group of men undercover into Munich in an attempt to capture or kill Hitler.

For many long and difficult weeks, Palm, a member of Company B of the 179th Infantry Regiment in the 45th Division, had slogged and fought his way across France and into the heart of Germany. Palm and his men were assisted by German soldiers who were revolting against the Nazis in Munich in a desperate attempt to prevent the total annihilation of the city — either by the rapidly approaching Allied forces or the by the demolitions planned by retreating German soldiers.

When Palm and his men burst into Hitler’s apartment, it was vacant. As they would later learn, the German despot was in his bunker in Berlin, many miles to the north, just hours away from suicide.

Palm was the first into Hitler’s office where he opened the desk and found the gold-plated pistol. He stuck it into his tunic and departed with his men. Palm was wounded in a firefight a few hours later on his way out of Munich and by September 1945 was on his way to his wife, Helen, in Salisbury, NC.

The second stop for the gun was the home of Charles Woodbridge, pastor of the Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Ga. Woodbridge was a dear friend of Palm. There is no record of why Palm gave the gun to Woodbridge; perhaps he was simply motivated by love and respect for the man he considered a brother.

Woodbridge delighted in showing the weapon to friends and members of his church. But he was only to have it a short while — the gun was stolen in a burglary of the Woodbridge family home in 1947.

The gun finally resurfaced in the 1950s, when a Wichita, Kan., police detective saw it at a gun show and was allowed to take it to the department’s crime lab, where it was photographed. The detective did not have the money to buy it, so photographs were the next best thing.

The gun would fall off the radar until 1966, when the March issue of the men’s magazine, Argosy, displayed a color picture of the pistol on its cover. An accompanying article said the weapon was being offered for sale by a gun dealer in Cleveland.

And, indeed, the gun was sold — to Andrew Wright, a Canadian gun and Nazi memorabilia collector from Swift Current, Saskatchewan. Wright had the idea that people would swarm to his farm, where he had built a museum to house his vast collection of Nazi artifacts.

But the crowds failed to materialize, and in 1987, the gun was sold at auction for $114,000, then the highest price ever paid for an item of military memorabilia. The owner, perhaps understandably, preferred to remain anonymous.

After that, the gun changed hands more than once. For a time, it rested with Warren Anderson, a construction magnate in Australia. Anderson later sold it to a gun dealer in Georgia. The Georgia dealer sold the gun to someone living on the West Coast who asked to remain nameless. And that’s where the gun is presumed to be today.

When the pistol was sold in Cleveland in 1966, the gun dealers reported that they had found blood under the grips of the pistol.

Whose blood was under those grips? Could it be that of Ira Palm — the man who dared to burst through a door to possibly come face to face with Adolf Hitler? Because of the secrecy surrounding this artifact from the ultimate villain, we may never know.

Maurice Possley is the author, with John Woodbridge, of “Hitler in the Crosshairs: A GI’s Story of Courage and Faith” (Zondervan), out now.

READ MORE AT NYPOST.COM

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