Georgia Has Killed an Innocent Man

by Ben Helford

Those who have been following the news lately are familiar with Troy Davis. After a long-shot, eleventh hour appeal to the Supreme Court on September 23rd, the Supreme Court declined to order a stay of execution. Troy Davis was killed late last Wednesday.

The details of the Davis case are outlined in this editorial in the New York Times, with some additional thoughts by Steve Benen. Here’s a summary:

In 1989, in Savannah, Georgia, Mark Macphail, an off-duty police officer, was killed while attempting to stop a scuffle in the parking lot of a Burger King. Later, Sylvester “Red” Coles showed up at a Savannah police station and pointed the finger at Troy Davis. Some evidence indicates that Coles was the shooter, including some witnesses who claim that Coles confessed to them. Police set to work on convicting Davis anyway.

None of the physical evidence put Davis at the Burger King that night. There were nine eyewitnesses, but seven of the witnesses have since recanted. To get these witnesses to identify Davis, the police engaged in severe misconduct. This ranged from threats and outright coercion, to restaging the event in front of four witnesses, to showing witnesses photos of Davis before conducting a lineup including Davis. All of these methods are known to increase the risk of false identifications.

Still, last Tuesday, September 20th, the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles denied clemency to Troy Davis. Their statement in full:

“This morning, the State Board of Pardons and Paroles issued its decision denying clemency for Troy Anthony Davis.  The Board members have not taken their responsibility lightly and certainly understand the emotions attached to a death penalty case. Since 2000, the Board has commuted three death penalty cases. In considering clemency in such cases, the Board weighs each case on its own merit. The Board has considered the totality of the information presented in this case and thoroughly deliberated on it, after which the decision was to deny clemency.”

For me, any benefit of the doubt that I would have given to the parole board is eliminated when they condescendingly tells us how they “understand the emotion attached to a death penalty case.” That’s lovely. As if the case to grant clemency to Troy Davis is based on just an emotional aversion to killing.

The news the night of the execution, that the Supreme Court denied a stay, was disappointing, but hardly unexpected.

Paul Campos has a good post detailing the issue, but we were out of legal solutions at this point.
There were no clear problems with the trial at the time (although you can make the argument that no one should be sentenced to death on eye witness testimony alone) and after the conviction, there’s not enough evidence to meet a clear and convincing burden of proof that he is innocent. There was certainly enough evidence that it was irresponsible and cruel for the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles not to give clemency, but that decision is still up to their discretion. What the Troy Davis case says to me is another piece of evidence that capital punishment should be removed. There is simply no way to run the system in a way to ensure we do not kill the innocent.

This is not the only case of an innocent man being killed by the state. Two years ago, The New Yorker published a fantastic investigative report about Cameron Todd Willingham a man who was killed by the State of Texas, despite the fact that the evidence against him was repeatedly debunked as pseudo-science.  The evidence was used to prove that he started the fire that killed his wife and twin daughters. And last week, the Supreme Court stayed the execution of Duane
Edward Buck
. The Buck case differs, since Buck admits that he did murder his girlfriend and the man he was with. The sentencing in that hearing was marred by a psychiatrist who testified that Buck was more likely to be dangerous thanks to his being black.

8 thoughts on “Georgia Has Killed an Innocent Man

  1. Such a sad case! We need to do more to assure our justice system is truly seeking justice and not just someone to take the hit. Especially when the death penalty is sought.

  2. I still struggle with the idea that the way our society tells people it is unacceptable to kill is by killing. Thanks for putting this editorial together, Ben.

  3. I have to admit that I was really surprised that Davis was not pardoned. From what I remember of what I have read, he maintained his innocence throughout. I would say that should raise a red flag, especially when the accused is on death row.

  4. This really is a national embarrassment. What does this say about our ability to challenge court decisions? May we only challenge them if there is some silly procedural error to dispute? Is there not a way to challenge the overall determination of the jury in death penalty cases? The system absorbs people all the time. It’s crazy that a death penalty case can stand on silly legal rules.

  5. Let’s forget that there is another party to this case: the victim and his family. We’re all very eager to weigh in on this case and all convinced as armchair jurors that Davis was innocent. There certainly seems to be good evidence that he was. But let’s not forget that he was convicted by a jury of his peers, he exhausted his appeals in state courts, federal courts, the board of clemency, the state governor, and the US Supreme Court. None of us were in those courtrooms and none of us knows what evidence was actually presented beyond what we’ve been told by journalists and the blogosphere.

    Officer Macphail’s family waited for justice for seventeen years. If no court has been convinced after that amount of time, I find it hard to believe that that was going to change. It’s a tragedy if Davis was innocent. As a generally anti-death penalty person myself, I tend to think it was still a tragedy if Davis was guilty. But there has to be closure at some point.

  6. I’ll never oppose the death penalty on moral grounds because there are other, less inflammatory, arguments against it that are more convincing to me. The foundation for the death penalty has to be that the person convicted actually committed the crime. As the movement of innocence and justice projects have proven, the criminal justice system often convicts innocent people. Both supporters of the death penalty and activists against the death penalty can agree that if our system is not 100% accurate in convicting guilty persons, it’s not an effective system. While I can’t assert with unwavering conviction that Troy Davis was innocent, I can say there was more than enough evidence to question his conviction. Isn’t the fact that none of us know for sure enough to say Georgia shouldn’t have executed him?

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