Executing the Innocent?
The state of Georgia plans to execute Troy Davis on October 14, 2007. And he might be innocent.
If you doubt that an innocent man can end up on death row, bear in mind that 15 death row inmates have been exonerated through DNA testing, while another 71 were freed after the discovery of other new evidence of innocence.
Since his conviction sixteen years ago, the evidence against Mr. Davis has crumbled, rendering his claims of innocence increasingly plausible. And yet, last week, he came within 24 hours of his death before the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles stayed his execution for 90 days in order to "evaluate and analyze" evidence that Mr. Davis may not be guilty.
Putting aside, for now, the larger issue of the death penalty, our system of justice should not, under any circumstance, permit an execution amid the serious questions of culpability that exist in Mr. Davis's case.
In 1991, Troy Davis was convicted of shooting and killing 27-year-old Officer Mark Allen MacPhail in a parking lot in Savannah, Georgia in 1989 while Officer MacPhail attempted to protect a homeless man, Larry Young, from being assaulted (an assault for which Davis was also convicted). At trial, Troy Davis admitted that he had been at the scene of the shooting, but claimed he had neither assaulted Larry Young nor shot Officer MacPhail. The case against Mr. Davis rested entirely on eyewitness testimony, as there was no scientific or physical evidence connecting Davis to the shooting (i.e., there was no DNA and the weapon was never found).
Although there were nine eyewitnesses at trial who pointed to Mr. Davis, in the intervening years since the trial, six of the witnesses have signed affidavits recanting their testimony, a seventh has contradicted it, an eighth refuses to cooperate in any way, and the ninth witness, Sylvester Coles, was the principle alternative suspect, and has been implicated by others as the actual shooter.
Of the recanting witnesses, one said he testified against Davis at a pretrial hearing but not at trial so as not to repeat his false testimony, one said he blamed Mr. Davis to settle a score, another because she was on parole and feared being sent back to prison, another signed a statement but was illiterate and was never certain who the shooter was, and three others said they pointed to Mr. Davis under police pressure, including a 16-year-old who was threatened and fed lines by the police at the police precinct to implicate Mr. Davis and Mr. Young, the homeless man who was attacked, who said the police pressured and threatened him when, in fact, he could not remember people's appearances from the incident.
Although the eyewitnesses in Troy Davis's case were coerced by the police or lied, it should be noted that mistaken eyewitness identification is repeatedly responsible for sending innocent people to prison. Over 75% of wrongful convictions proven by DNA testing, for example, were caused entirely or in part by mistaken identification, sometimes by multiple witnesses.
Despite this wealth of new and changed information in Mr. Davis's case, because of an ever-more-stringent appellate process in this country which increases the obstacles for prisoners to present newly-discovered evidence (embedded in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), part of Newt Gingrich's Contract with America), Troy Davis has never had a court hearing on the current state of the witness testimony and yet has exhausted all of his legal appeals. The final blow came in June 2007 when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear his case.
So now Mr. Davis's life rests entirely in the hands of the Board of Pardons and Paroles.
As Georgia Representative John Lewis stated before the Board at Mr. Davis's clemency hearing earlier this month, "A man who may well be innocent may die tomorrow --- all because of ... technicalities. This is much more than frustrating; it is tragic. It is unjust. ... If executing Troy Davis on the evidence we now have is the best our justice system can do, then that system is not worthy of the word justice."
It would be a travesty if Georgia killed Mr. Davis in light of the numerous doubts that have been raised about his guilt. Moreover, although it may well be that freedom is what Mr. Davis deserves, his supporters are not requesting his release, but rather that his sentence be commuted to life without parole. In a country that seems to enjoy the role of protagonist on the world stage when the show is about imprisoning and executing people, Mr. Davis's predicament is dire. However, the Board of Pardons and Paroles stated that it "will not allow an execution to proceed ... unless and until its members are convinced that there is no doubt as to the guilt of the accused." Due to the perseverance and courage of his supporters (see below), and the compelling evidence it has and will present to the Board, hope remains.
To learn more about Mr. Davis's case or get involved, see Emory Law School's efforts to help (initiated by its Indigent Defense Clinic), send a letter through Amnesty International , visit the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, or contact the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles directly via fax at 404-651-8502, e-mail at Clemency_Information@pap.state.ga.us, phone at (404) 657-9350, or mail at:
State Board of Pardons and Paroles
2 Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive, SE
Suite 458, Balcony Level, East Tower
Atlanta, Georgia 30334-4909