Despite Controversy And Doubt, Troy Davis Was Executed In Georgia Last Night
The execution of Troy Davis brings back to the forefront the reasons why the death penalty is inherently flawed.
After a three hour delay while they waited to hear one last time from the Supreme Court of the United States, last night the State of Georgia executed Troy Davis, who had been convicted in 1989 of the shooting of a Savannah, Ga. police officer:
JACKSON, Ga. — Proclaiming his innocence, Troy Davis was put to death by lethal injection on Wednesday night, his life — and the hopes of supporters worldwide — prolonged by several hours while the Supreme Court reviewed but then declined to act on a petition from his lawyers to stay the execution.
Mr. Davis, 42, who was convicted of murdering a Savannah police officer 22 years ago, entered the death chamber shortly before 11 p.m., four hours after the scheduled time. He died at 11:08.
This final chapter before his execution had become an international symbol of the battle over the death penalty and racial imbalance in the justice system.
“It harkens back to some ugly days in the history of this state,” said the Rev. Raphael Warnock of Ebenezer Baptist Church, who visited Mr. Davis on Monday.
Mr. Davis remained defiant at the end, according to reporters who witnessed his death. He looked directly at the members of the family of Mark MacPhail, the officer he was convicted of killing, and told them they had the wrong man.
“I did not personally kill your son, father, brother,” he said. “All I can ask is that you look deeper into this case so you really can finally see the truth.”
He then told his supporters and family to “keep the faith” and said to prison personnel, “May God have mercy on your souls; may God bless your souls.”
One of the witnesses, a radio reporter from WSB in Atlanta, said it appeared that the MacPhail family “seemed to get some satisfaction” from the execution.
For Mr. Davis’s family and other supporters gathered in front of the prison, the final hours were mixed with hope, tears and exhaustion. The crowd was buoyed by the Supreme Court’s involvement, but crushed when the justices issued their one-sentence refusal to consider a stay.
When the news of his death came, the family left quietly and the 500 or so supporters began to pack up and leave their position across the state highway from the prison entrance. Mr. Davis’s body was driven out of the grounds about midnight.
During the evening, a dozen supporters of the death penalty, including people who knew the MacPhail family sat quietly, separated from the Davises and their supporters by a stretch of lawn and rope barriers.
The appeal to the Supreme Court was one of several last-ditch efforts by Mr. Davis on Wednesday. Earlier in the day, an official with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People said that the vote by the Georgia parole board to deny clemency to Mr. Davis was so close that he hoped there might be a chance to save him from execution.
The official, Edward O. DuBose, president of the Georgia chapter, said the group had “very reliable information from the board members directly that the board was split 3 to 2 on whether to grant clemency.”
“The fact that that kind of division was in the room is even more of a sign that there is a strong possibility to save Troy’s life,” he said.
Mr. Davis was convicted of the 1989 shooting of Officer MacPhail, who was working a second job as a security guard. A homeless man called for help after a group that included Mr. Davis began to assault him, according to court testimony. When Officer MacPhail went to assist him, he was shot in the face and the heart.
Before Wednesday, Mr. Davis had walked to the brink of execution three times.
His conviction came after testimony by some witnesses who later recanted and on the scantest of physical evidence, adding fuel to those who rely on the Internet to rally against executions and to question the validity of eyewitness identification and of the court system itself.
This wasn’t Davis’s first trip to Georgia’s death chamber. He had been scheduled to die three times previously, once in 2007 and twice in 2008. On all three occasions, the execution was halted by either the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles or the Supreme Court of the United States because of the doubts that had arisen regarding Davis’s conviction. After delaying the third execution, the Supreme Court ordered a review of all the evidence in the case by a Federal Judge, who found that the evidence that led to conviction was sufficient and that the doubts that had been raised over the years were not sufficient to overturn the sentence. After several more appeals and requests for clemency, all of which were denied, we came to the events of last night.
And yet, the doubts still remain. Seven of the nine witnesses that had testified against Davis at trial recanted their testimony, many of them stating in affidavits that they had been pressured by Savannah Police to identify Davis as the shooter. Another witness was a jailhouse snitch whose credibility was, quite obviously, subject to doubt. Even without the recantations, though, it’s been fairly well established that eyewitness testimony is not nearly as reliable as people think it is, and that it is one of the leading causes of wrongful conviction. Last month, these well-established doubts about eyewitness testimony recently led the Supreme Court of New Jersey to order drastic changes to the manner in which eyewitness testimony is handled in that state, and how juries are instructed as to its reliability. A study released just this week establishes that changes of the type being adopted in New Jersey can help drastically cut down on the number of bad eyewitness identifications, and in turn the number of wrongful convictions. In addition to the eyewitness testimony, there was also ballistic evidence purporting to tie Davis to McPhail’s shooting, but even ballistic evidence isn’t as reliable as you might think it is.
The point is, there were doubts, enough doubts that the Davis case drew attention not just from the usual death penalty opponents — Pope Benedict XVI, former President Jimmy Carter, Amnesty International and The Innocence Project had all taken up Davis’s cause — but across the political spectrum. Former Republican Congressman Bob Barr said that executing Davis would violate core principles of justice:
I support the death penalty, and have for a long time. And I am not making a judgment as to whether Davis is guilty or innocent. But surely the citizens of Savannah and the state of Georgia want justice served on behalf of MacPhail, the police officer.
Imposing a death sentence on the skimpiest of evidence does not serve the interest of justice. The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles did not honor the standards of justice on which all Americans depend by granting clemency. In doing so, it will allow a man to be executed when we cannot be assured of his guilt.
That was the final admirable principle standing between Davis and his scheduled death by lethal injection Wednesday. And the parole board did not uphold it.
Barr was joined by former FBI Director William Sessions:
At Davis’ evidentiary hearing, witnesses called by Davis recanted trial testimony and made allegations of police pressure. Others testified that an alternative suspect had confessed to them that he committed the crime. One eyewitness testified, for the first time, that he saw this other suspect, a relative of his, commit the crime. Police witnesses for the state of Georgia alternatively asserted that the original trial testimony was the true version of events and that it was elicited without coercion.
Some of these same witnesses also had testified at Davis’ trial but have since recanted their trial testimony. The judge at the evidentiary hearing found their recantations to be unreliable and, therefore, found Davis was unable to “clearly establish” his innocence. The problem is that the testimony of these same witnesses, whom the judge had determined were less believable, had been essential to the original conviction and death sentence.
What the hearing demonstrated most conclusively was that the evidence in this case — consisting almost entirely of conflicting stories, testimonies and statements — is inadequate to the task of convincingly establishing either Davis’ guilt or his innocence. Without DNA or other forms of physical or scientific evidence that can be objectively measured and tested, it is possible that doubts about guilt in this case will never be resolved.
However, when it comes to the sentence of death, there should be no room for doubt. I believe there is no more serious crime than the murder of a law enforcement officer who was putting his or her life on the line to protect innocent bystanders. However, justice is not done for Officer Mark Allen MacPhail Sr. if the wrong man is punished.
The proper outcome, Sessions argues, would be clemency, where Davis’s sentence of death would have been commuted to life. At the very least, if it was discovered at a later date that he was in fact innocent, then it would still be possible to rectify a miscarriage of justice. Now that Davis is dead, all we”ll have are the lingering doubts and a feeling that justice wasn’t really done in this case.
Dahlia Lithwick wonders whether the Davis case will be one that impacts public opinion on the death penalty:
Start with the fact that the Troy Davis case has created staggering levels of public interest in the death penalty. (Jeff Toobin called Davis was “the best-known person on death row” and that no death penalty case has engendered this much public doubt and outrage since the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, killed in 1953 for spying for the Soviet Union.) It is probably folly to try to understand why one death penalty case captures the public imagination more than any other. But the Davis case illustrates so many of the growing doubts about the capital system, such as questions about the reliability of eyewitness testimony (as explained by Brandon Garrett), the grotesque levels of racial bias that infect the capital sentencing system, and the various types of police misconduct.
Whatever the reason, those who are opposed to the death penalty in general and those who opposed it in this particular case have drawn enough attention to the case that even Kim Kardashian was tweeting about it. Facebook profiles were changed to read “I Am Troy Davis” and Twitter activists used hashtags such #IamTroyDavis and #TooMuchDoubt to urge supporters to call the offices of the judge and district attorney. Rallies, vigils, and protests were organized on both Facebook and Twitter in ways that have put the question of capital punishment before hundreds of thousands of Americans who may not have felt that they had a voice (or even a strong opinion) on the issue. It seems that Americans, and especially young Americans, have a lot to say. The point they were all making—I am Troy Davis—is exactly the right one: Could someone I care about have been sentenced to death based on a bunch of eyewitnesses who later recanted?
At the same time, though, the death penalty remains widely popular, even across traditional political and ideological boundaries. The reaction of the crowd at the Reagan Library Debate to the Rick Perry’s response to a death penalty question, while disturbing to many including many, is I would submit closer to the way that most Americans feel about this issue than Lithwick seems to want to admit. As Steve Kornacki notes in an article Lithwick cites, deep down the public support for the death penalty is rooted in something that may not be influenced by the reality of executing a man who may have been innocent:
For all of the systemic flaws that have been revealed in the past decade or so — for all of the innocent people who have been freed after years of incarceration — the basic eye-for-an-eye nature of the death penalty remains compelling for most Americans, a sentiment reinforced by the occasional horrific crime. Take the state of Connecticut, where the gruesome murder of a suburban family in 2007 (which is still in the news, as the trial of one of the killers proceeds) apparently increased support for capital punishment in the state — enough to convince the last governor to veto a plan to outlaw it.
This feeling is reinforced by this conclusion from a 2009 Gallup poll on the death penalty:
This year’s poll finds 59% of Americans agreeing that within the last five years, “a person has been executed under the death penalty who was, in fact, innocent of the crime he or she was charged with.” A little less than a third disagree.
However, for many Americans, agreement with the assertion that innocent people have been put to death does not preclude simultaneous endorsement of the death penalty. A third of all Americans, 34%, believe an innocent person has been executed and at the same time support the death penalty. This is higher than the 23% who believe an innocent person has been executed and simultaneously oppose the death penalty.
Let that one sink in for a second. One-third of Americans believe that an innocent person has been executed, and they still support the death penalty. In the face of numbers like that, it’s hard to believe that the Davis case, or the cases of Cameron Todd Wilmingham, Claude Jones, and Corey Maye, is going to move the needle on public opinion significantly.
I’ve made my own position on capital punishment clear here before:
There was a time when I was a supporter, albeit a reluctant one, of capital punishment, but that time has come to an end. For one thing, I’ve come to the general conclusion that the state should not have the power to take anyone’s life, even when they’ve committed a violent and horrible crime. Additionally, ever since the advent of DNA evidence, we’ve seen far too many instances of innocent men imprisoned for crimes that they clearly did not commit to think that it hasn’t happened in a capital punishment case. Finally, my own professional interaction with the criminal justice system on a regular basis made it clear to me fairly early on that the system was far too imperfect to trust it with the power of life and death, and this is especially true when a defendant facing a death sentence is forced to accept court-appointed counsel that lacks both the experience and the resources that a private-hired attorney would. The question of whether you live or die shouldn’t depend on whether or not you’re rich enough to hire a good lawyer, but, far too often, it does.
I know that most people disagree with me, and I can respect that. What I don’t understand are the people who said we shouldn’t explore the doubts in a case like this, or the ones, like Ann Coulter, who seem to want to gleefully celebrate Davis’s death. There’s something uncivilized about that attitude. If you’re going to ask the state to kill in your name, the least you can do is not celebrate when it happens, especially when so many people who would usually agree with you are expressing doubts.
As far as Troy Davis goes, I don’t know whether he is guilty or not. However, based on the questions that have been raised about his prosecution and the material that I have read, it strikes me that there was sufficient doubt in this case to question whether the death sentence should have been carried out. In reality, though, the question isn’t whether Davis is innocent but whether his conviction was just. Given the questionable evidence, the witness recantations, the jurors who’ve said they wish they could take back their verdict, and the numerous doubts that have been raised in the 22 years that this case traveled through the legal system, it’s clear to me that the State of Georgia should have foresworn this opportunity for vengeance in this case.