September 20th, 2011
09:21 PM ET

Prosecutor says he has no doubt about Troy Davis' guilt

For the Georgia prosecutor who put Troy Davis on trial in 1991 for killing a cop and won a conviction, there were two cases being fought.

"There is the legal case, the case in court, and the public relations case," Spencer Lawton, the former Chatham County prosecutor, said. "We have consistently won the case as it has been presented in court. We have consistently lost the case as it has been presented in the public realm, on TV and elsewhere."

Lawton spoke to CNN about the Davis case, his first interview on the case since Davis' initial trial, after the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles denied clemency for the death-row inmate on Tuesday.

Davis was convicted of the 1989 killing of Savannah, Georgia, police officer Mark MacPhail. He is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection at 7 p.m. Wednesday at a state prison in Jackson, Georgia.

After he was sentenced to death, Davis' lawyers filed a federal court appeal insisting there was "no physical evidence linking" Davis to MacPhail’s murder. They called the testimony of a ballistics expert that shell casings from another shooting by Davis matched casings found at the murder scene an "unremarkable conclusion" since the murder weapon was not found.

"We believe that we've established substantial doubt in this case," Stephen Marsh, Davis' attorney, said at the time. "And given the level of doubt that exists in this case, we believe that an execution is simply not appropriate."

Thousands of influential dignitaries, including the pope, South Africa's Desmond Tutu and former President Jimmy Carter, as well as more than 600,000 people have signed a petition seeking to stop Davis' execution.

Lawton says he believes the outrage over the sentence resulted from a public relations campaign by Davis' supporters, while prosecutors remained silent outside the courtroom.

"It's just been my policy, that I not comment on a pending case - and this case has been pending for two decades," he said. "For two decades, I've maintained my silence. That meant I could never respond.

"So we have been at an extreme disadvantage in the public relations campaign for that reason, because we felt that we were ethically bound to maintain our silence and express our opinions and judgments on the facts in court, which is where we have. And every place we have, we have won."

Now that he can speak, since he considers the case officially closed with the parole board's ruling, he wants to clear the air about a few things.

He told CNN he has no doubt about Davis' guilt. He said he believes supporters have been misinformed about the facts of the case.

He said he believed that documents from early on in the trial were being "exploited" when supporters tried to cast doubt on physical evidence or said there was none.

Davis was convicted of the first, non-fatal, shooting in Savannah's Cloverdale neighborhood that night.  Lawton said there was confusion over evidence in the murder case because the shell casings from both shootings wound up in the same evidence bag.

"That confusion was subsequently resolved; it was resolved adequately at trial," he said. "Our problem, from the state's point of view, is the documents, which initially reflect the initial confusion, are still out there and are being exploited to that end."

Davis' supporters also have attacked the witness testimony in the murder trial as shoddy and pointed out that several witnesses, including some who had claimed that Davis told them he killed the officer, later recanted their testimony, in some case blaming pressure from police.

But Lawton said recanted statements don't deserve the validity they have been given in media accounts.  He said a judge ruled they were at the very least "suspect" because they were not given under oath and prosecutors never got the opportunity to cross-examine the recanting witnesses in court.

He also said the question of duress cuts both ways.

"I think that what you would find is there was as much duress applied to get the affidavits as the affidavits are said to contain allegations of duress on the part of police," he said.

And  Lawton question why it took Davis' lawyers 15 or 20 years to get these witnesses to recant and why they then waited until eight days before Davis' first scheduled execution to make these explosive statements public.

Lawton told CNN he believes "that the affidavits of recantation were of more value to the attorneys as a device for delay than they were valuable as a device for substantive argument."

Lawton said the lengthy nature of the case has helped rampant speculation override the facts.

"It has been a game of delay throughout. The longer the delay, the more time they have to create not doubt, not honest doubt, not real doubt, but the appearance of doubt," he said. "And there are people who have not troubled themselves to acquaint themselves with the record, who don't know the facts, who do oppose the death penalty and who have been willing on the strength of that emotion alone to assume the truth of the allegations of the weakness of evidence in the case."

Lawton said some people who are fully aware of the facts believe the death penalty doesn't fit the crime, and he understands how they've reached that conclusion.

Lawton questioned Pope Benedict XVI's interpretation of the intricacies of Georgia law.

"His holiness has expressed his objection to the death penalty in the case, although it's noteworthy he didn't constrain himself to the issue of morality of the death penalty - he went on to comment on the sufficiency of evidence in the case," Lawton said regarding the pope's recent comments. "This is not something I had previously thought the Holy See had expertise in, that is to say Georgia's evidentiary rules."

He also challenged the views of former FBI director and federal district judge William S. Sessions, and Bob Barr, a former federal prosecutor and Georgia congressman, who have said there is no credible physical evidence in the case.

"Their credibility is hanging on a falsehood," Lawton said. "They would know differently if they looked at the record."

As for President Carter's position that Davis should get life without parole because he was unfairly convicted based on the evidence, Lawton said:

"This is fuzzy thinking. This is what happens when you try a criminal case in the streets, when it becomes a public relations campaign," the former D.A. said. "When it's in a court, you get disciplined thinking. We've won every time the thinking has been disciplined."

Lawton said he doesn't feel Tuesday's ruling resulted in a "happy day for anyone."

"I have no brief for the death penalty. If it were to evaporate tomorrow, it would suit me fine," he said. "On the other hand, it is a part of, a component of, Georgia's law and that's what I was sworn to uphold."

Lawton said he's against mob justice of any kind.

"Would it be different if all these people were agitating to have someone executed? The criminal justice system should cow in the face of that kind of mob action? No, we would all say no," he said. "That's not the way the system is supposed to operate."

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Filed under: Courts • Crime • Death Penalty • Georgia • Justice
soundoff (1,145 Responses)
  1. ac dumas

    time will determine guilt or innocent.

    September 23, 2011 at 9:59 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Kenji Nihipali

    He's dead already. Let him and his family be. The debate over a dead man should die and move on to the next guy that everyone seems to think is innocent.

    September 24, 2011 at 1:56 am | Report abuse | Reply
    • Jellybean

      From your statement, you assume he was guilty. Just because that is your assumption does not make it the truth. I want you to remember this when things are assumed about you, when you stand accused of something that you are truly not guilty of; then, maybe you will understand the situation at it's core and not from an outsiders point of view. Judge not, lest you be judged. The same measure that you measure with, shall be measured unto you!

      September 24, 2011 at 12:05 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Jellybean

    It was a terrible miscarriage of justice. Troy Davis forgave all who had any hand in his conviction and exection. That says a lot. He should not have had to prove himself innocent, in this country we are suppose to be innocent until proven guilty with no reasonable doubt. The Mac Phail family will not find peace or closure in an innocent man's death, they are lying to themselves if they pretend to. Their peace and closure will come through forgiveness and the letting go of seeking revenge with a heart bent on blood for blood; that is not the spirit of God.Who was pistol whipping the homeless man in the first place? How come the gun that Sylvester Coles admitted having but conveniently gave to someone else earlier that day, was never confiscated and examined? Troy Davis said to dig deeper for the truth, The Bible says there is nothing hidden that shall not be uncovered! Sylvester "Redd" Coles, how do you feel about the man you see in the mirror? I realize an Officer lost his life and that is wrong also, however, the justice does not come in the killing of just any man, it must be the actual guilty man, the one who did this crime. Until that happens the state of Georgia is nothing but a big blob of racism and corruption. It has shown it's true colors. Some say the south has changed, that is not true. They have only found another way to camouflage and sugarcoat the racism that has existed for centuries. This is truly, truly sad. that mankind can be so cruel and heartless and resort to such tactics as these and call it justice.

    September 24, 2011 at 11:58 am | Report abuse | Reply
  4. mrshman

    I just left for a party with my .38. Some guy at the party got shot in the face with a .38 so I left and went to burger king. A guy I know says I hit a homeless fellow in the head with my .38 . To top it all off , another guy gets shot in the face with a .38 . crazy stuff. I'll probably go to jail just because I'm black , 9 people saw me do it and I'll get a predominantly black jury.Gee whiz,America is racist.

    September 25, 2011 at 3:21 am | Report abuse | Reply
    • Neil

      He confessed to the first shooting.

      September 28, 2011 at 12:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • skstover

      Davis was not going to get the death penalty for shooting the first man...killing a law enforcement officer is what resulted in the death penalty. I think there is always doubt about any conviction; it is not a perfect system that is why I do not support the death penalty. Do I think Troy Davis was guilty; yes, based on the evidence I have read about from both sides. Do I think he deserved to be put to death; no, there are too many flaws and always doubt. I have problems with a service that is "celebrating" the life of a criminal.

      October 1, 2011 at 9:10 am | Report abuse |
  5. mrshman

    I just left for a party with my .38. Some guy at the party got shot in the face with a .38 so I left and went to burger king. A guy I know says I hit a homeless fellow in the head with my .38 . To top it all off , another guy gets shot in the face with a .38 . crazy stuff. I'll probably go to jail just because I'm black , 9 people saw me do it and I'll get a predominantly black jury.Gee whiz,America is racist.

    September 25, 2011 at 3:22 am | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Erik

    To say the least, I think this trial has to make us question our government and american system. In the past, the government has covered up various things, and likewise the media exaggerates certain things in topics. Kind of tough to tell who to believe now. I think we as a nation need to fix that.

    October 2, 2011 at 2:17 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Ex White Cop

    There is doubt.

    October 3, 2011 at 1:33 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • nimitta

      No, there was no doubt. The mixed jury took less than two hours to convict. I've always supported Amnesty International, but they picked the wrong case to showcase their opposition to capital punishment (which I share). That's why they had to fudge the facts ('no physical evidence', '7 of 9 recanted'...both claims false!). Watch the entire interview with Spencer Lawton, read Judge Moore's appellate decision, and you'll see that they are honorable men, no death penalty hawks, and that the evidence was incontrovertible.

      October 20, 2011 at 12:41 pm | Report abuse |
  8. White Southern Male

    Yep... he could have been re tried and would not have hurt anything to do it. Now that old white woman still doesn't feel any better now that Troy is dead. How do two wrongs make a right? Everybody pushing to kill Troy was white... or a cop. Seems as obvious as the nose on the prosecutors face. The cops lied. Scarey to go into Georgia now. The cops there are ALL not to be trusted.

    October 3, 2011 at 1:37 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  9. White Republican

    Why couldn't Obama have grown some testicles and granted him a pardon? Cause he ain't really black.

    October 3, 2011 at 1:39 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Dena

      I wish, but he couldn't by law: presidents can only do pardons in federal cases, and this was a states right all the way.

      October 7, 2011 at 10:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bubba

      Hey Dummy, are you saying that because Davis was black that ANOTHER black man should pardon him?.... Why don't YOU grow a set?

      October 27, 2011 at 4:47 pm | Report abuse |
  10. panorain

    Troy thought he capped a rent-a-cop, not a real one. So big mistake there. Plus it was dark, so Troy might have thought he was killing a black man. And could never be convicted. Because of the code of silence. But since the victim was white the code didn't apply and none of the witnesses "didn't see nothing" and were free to talk freely with the police.

    April 12, 2012 at 12:16 am | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Imprensa

    I loathe chain mail even in email or cmemont form. I taught high school for a while, junior high before that, this sounds like the kind of thing teens do. Still it is inappropriate and it's good to take steps to prevent this kind of thing from happening again.

    July 14, 2012 at 3:12 am | Report abuse | Reply
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