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. Kevin

    Yikes, we're all blind!

    September 20, 2011 at 10:08 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • economistman

      the South frightens me.

      September 20, 2011 at 10:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jean Sartre, WI

      Just like the 3 monkeys: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil... hell, man, that's most of the SOUTH!

      September 21, 2011 at 3:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • 4Real

      Yikes – justice was served.

      September 22, 2011 at 2:09 am | Report abuse |
  2. Adam

    Two wrongs do not make a right. I attended a speech tonight at my school by the mother of a murder victim. She spoke about the crime and the pain and suffering her family went through as a result of her daughters murder. She also discussed the court case and eventual execution of the killer, which she witnessed. Afterwards, when the group was allowed to ask questions, someone asked if she still supported the death penalty after witnessing what she described as a "horrific" exectution. She said that up until the execution she was all for justice being served, but after she was faced with doubts as she could not see what the execution had really accomplished. Her daughter could not be brought back. In the end, I believe that the death penalty is not the solution to any problem. This case appears to be a sad example of the lack of a solid appeals system in the United States. The fact that seven of the nine witnesses recanted or changed their statements claiming that they were coerced by police is reason enough to consider that justice may have not been properly reached in this case.

    September 20, 2011 at 10:09 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Faith

      The only upside that I can see is no possible chance a killer will walk the streets again. Death is final. Life in prison can end up with parole, time for good behavior, appeals, lighter sentence for cooperation with other investigations... it's scary to think.

      September 21, 2011 at 2:43 am | Report abuse |
    • Nicole

      @Faith: there is no "upside." Under your logic we should just off ourselves to prevent the possibility of a killer walking the streets. The point is that by killing him (if he is innocent) the real killer is possibly still out there....

      September 21, 2011 at 3:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • sambo

      It accomplished an eye for an eye. Murder is a crime against SOCIETY. The relatives can feel sorry for the killer and not want him executed; but too bad. He paid for his crime ....get over it

      September 21, 2011 at 7:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • 4Real

      Two wrongs don't make a right, but it damn sure makes up even!

      September 22, 2011 at 1:56 am | Report abuse |
    • 4Real

      ^^^ Typo = Two wrongs don't make a right, but it damn sure makes us even!

      September 22, 2011 at 1:57 am | Report abuse |
  3. David deNomme

    Innocent till proven guilty? I guess not in Georgia. Thought they were part of the US...

    September 20, 2011 at 10:11 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • tensor

      12 jurors 20 years ago disagree with you, and 7 of those 12 were black.

      September 20, 2011 at 10:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Stella

      He was proved guilty. Over and over and over and over and over...

      September 20, 2011 at 10:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Christa

      @ Tensor- A juror said that if she knew then what she knows now- it would have been reasonable doubt...She would have voted not guilty...enough said.

      September 20, 2011 at 10:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • JustObvious

      Objecting to the death penalty in general is reasonable. Troy Davis was a murderous thug on a rampage and the evidence is without a credible alternative of guilt. The recantations are irrelevant compared to the leading events and physical evidence.

      September 20, 2011 at 10:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Andrew

      Pretty sure he WAS proven guilty in a court of law. If he wasn't, he wouldn't be in jail. Despite the "evidence" a jury of his peers convicted this guy, hence guilt. That's the law, get used to it.

      September 21, 2011 at 12:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Scratch

      Christa...what the juror "knows" now, she heard in the press. Not in a courtroom, and not in accordance with the procedures in place to ensure a fair trial (and don't forget that "fair" means fair for both the defendant and for the citizens for whom the prosecutor works.)

      September 21, 2011 at 3:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Randall

      wait, i'm just confused. WHAT PHYSICAL EVIDENCE?!?!?

      September 21, 2011 at 8:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • paulm5545

      In 1991 he was convicted (found guilty) and every argument, appeal and court afterward has upheld that conviction. He was innocent until proven guilty.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • MagnoliasAndMolotovs

      That's just it–there was NO physical evidence. Even Lawton admitted what little evidence he had he mixed up and couldn't properly sort. This is not the first famous case he screwed up. He was the same idiot that was caught manipulating evidence in the "Midnight" murder case, which was tried FOUR times before the truth came out. Davis only had ONE trial, but has been appealing ever since.

      September 22, 2011 at 12:14 am | Report abuse |
    • Ed

      JustObvious....did you know this man?.....were you there when the officer was killed?

      September 22, 2011 at 5:39 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Tabatha

    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

    wow!! Wonder who made that mistake?? Mistakes and delays with lawyers is what killed an innocent man! If there's doubt you can't execute! But i forgot this is America..land of the "free"....

    September 20, 2011 at 10:12 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Christopher

      Well, not totally innocent.... but perhaps innocent of the killing of the cop, hell yes! Frankly, the judge should have dismissed that evidence as 'tainted'..... I don't understand why that wouldn't be police misconduct. Hell, even I as a layman (paralegal, actually) know that you NEVER put the evidence for two different crimes IN THE SAME BAD... unless you are talking about sealed and labeled plastic bags being put in the same paper bag.

      Even then, it's rare for that to happen in a LEGITIMATELY TRAINED police force.

      September 20, 2011 at 10:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Scratch

      Casings from both crimes were put into the same bag. And ALL of the casings, from both crime scenes, were from the same weapon. What does that tell you?

      September 21, 2011 at 3:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • David

      scratch is exactly right if all the casings ended up in the same bag and they all match....the same gun was used and I don't think anyone is arguing that he did not shoot the first guy. Another thing that is rarely mentioned is that Troy was 4 hours away at a relatives house right after the shooting where he was washing his clothes which had blood on them. The were thrown out on a technicality but if you are truly looking at guilt versus innocence it is something to consider

      September 21, 2011 at 4:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • MagnoliasAndMolotovs

      The casings were not from the same gun. There were different weapons and casing sizes and not all could be matched with the weapon Davis allegedly had.

      September 22, 2011 at 12:16 am | Report abuse |
  5. Geoffrey

    I find it very intriguing how people seem to cry for help without knowing or even attempting to learn or research about something before throwing their opinion out there. But hey, we all have the freedom to express our opinion whenever we want and it's great. I just would really like to know where all these people have been over the last two decades. I think it's sad that this man has been behind bars for the last twenty years and has had all these people that care about him just now surfacing and being so loyal to him. This is just great propaganda for people who oppose the death penalty to get out there and be heard. If your such advocates and oppose it so much then why wait until there's 8 days left to get things going. This case has gone through every level of the court system and the courts have reached the same verdict every time. Folks, let's not forget the law is the law and the officials are elected to uphold these laws regardless of political, racial or personal opinions.

    September 20, 2011 at 10:13 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Shawn

      Well I have to disagree. Obviously race plays a bigger role in our so called justice system. When the guy in Texas who is clearly guilty of two murders first dragging an African American to death n the killing of a immigrant in a bar, gets yet another reprieve something is wrong with that picture especially when u have a lack of substantial evidence in the Davis case and he is still going to follow out his penalty.

      September 20, 2011 at 10:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Austin

      I haven't seen this in the news until now. Most people really don't have time to review every court case conviction in their daily lives but when it does hit the news and when you do learn about it then you can do something even if it is only 8 days before the execution. Late action is not to be discredited or torn down because they did not act on your timeline.

      September 21, 2011 at 4:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nicole77

      @Shawn – I really disagree that this has to do with race. Troy was a criminal and is a convicterded murderer (even if you rule out the murder of the police officer). He is not those things because he is black, he is a criminal beceause he committed crimes (he was convicted in a court of law – actually courts of law). Also, the Texas white criminal we are talking about was executed earlier today. He too, tried to save his life by using all of his appeals, however I didn't hear about his plight until after he was dead.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:53 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Christopher

    With all due respect, if he says that this man is innocent (at least of the crime he was given the death penalty for) he can kiss any further aspirations he has goodbye.

    September 20, 2011 at 10:15 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • MagnoliasAndMolotovs

      He was voted out and can't get elected dog catcher in Savannah any more. He made a lot of enemies when he was in office and embarrassed the city over and over even before this case. So, his "retirement" was not by choice.

      He's even lying in this story when he says no one brought up the recanted testimony till this week. It has been an issue for the last several appeals. Amazing that HE chose to come forward this late in the game to claim some reflected glory on this case since he had so many other cases that ended up biting him in the heiney.

      September 22, 2011 at 12:22 am | Report abuse |
  7. just ice

    Kevin, no one confessed to the crime.

    September 20, 2011 at 10:16 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Mel

    Oh, yeah, I'm sure this guy has no conflict of interest in defending his conviction of Troy Davis. Riiiiiiiiight. And if you believe that, I have a couple of bridges in the San Francisco area to sell you and your own secure condo on a private island in the middle of the bay!

    September 20, 2011 at 10:16 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  9. FreshxWater

    This is the South's symbolic execution of President Obama! There is NO WAY they would grant clemency even though they know he's innocent! The South is a snake pit or racism carried on by the Republican Party!

    September 20, 2011 at 10:17 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • JusticeforMcPhailsFamily

      I think many protesters want to see a black man get away for killing a white police officer. Why couldn't this be considered a hate crime? How many of the protesters hate white people? How can all these people recant their stories? I'll tell you what I think it is......a bunch of people getting together and plotting how they are going to get the cop killer off. Here's what is symbolic....a black man killing a white officer and getting away with it is like getting back at the racist whites of the past. So.......I think I'm correct on this one. And he shot someone earlier that night? Why did he shoot that person? Common sense is a great thing.

      September 20, 2011 at 10:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • jja

      Say no to drugs – just say "no" – They're rotting your brain...

      September 20, 2011 at 10:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • EducateYourself

      And your assumptions that everybody in the south and in the republican party are "racist" just shows how ignorant you are. Is that really all you can resort to because after years and years of hearing that excuse it's starting to get old. Just for future reference, the majority of the people that read comments or articles claiming somebody or some group is racist without FACTS, ends up making themselves look more ignorant and less credible than those they claim to be racist. Educate yourself please. K Thanks!

      September 20, 2011 at 10:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • underdogautopsy

      Just this past weekend, I listened to a black essayist on NPR mention how she'd been tempted to move to the south, where African Americans often felt more accepted than in the northeast. I live in the south and I've been exposed to the African American culture since my developmental years. I envy it; the culture of family, love, and freedom of expression.

      Whatever you've read about the south in your history books, or in online blogs, or maybe by visiting the panhandle of Florida (which is the only southern territory I've visited where I tangibly felt this racist hatred), it is not a just vision of the true South. We are everyone all at once and are happy with it. Wish you were.

      September 21, 2011 at 12:20 am | Report abuse |
  10. Mel

    Also, there are many people (on different threads) who say that the evidence has been out there for 22 years, so why bring up new stuff now. My question is: If there is no statute of limitations on murder, is there a statute of limitations on evidence in a murder case? If new evidence comes up after a conviction, is it just "too bad, so sad" for the defendant? That is ridiculous, especially in a capital case.

    September 20, 2011 at 10:20 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Scratch

      New evidence can be used to overturn an old conviction, but it cannot be used to re-try someone who was found not guilty. But I don't think any new evidence was found...just some witnesses changing their stories.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • 4Real

      There was no new evidence!!! So it doesn't apply here.

      September 22, 2011 at 1:58 am | Report abuse |
  11. Ex-cop

    This case would have been over 20 years ago and the state would have saved tens of millions of dollars in attorney fees and tons of bad publicity if prosecutors had simply asked for a sentence of life without possibility of parole at the original trial.

    September 20, 2011 at 10:22 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Scott A

    Of course the prosecutor would have no doubt...he would be a laughing stock if he said otherwise...his career is built on people being found guilty. There was no weapon, no blood, and nothing but hearsay that convicted this man. I don't know if he's guilty or not, but you're not supposed to find people guilty unless there is a reasonable doubt. Going on other people's words (many of whom ended up recanting) may be enough for the prosecutor, but those who fear not being able to sleep at night, don't want to make the mistake of seeing a possibly innocent man put to death.

    September 20, 2011 at 10:30 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • US Citizen

      Casings were a match! I guess you believe in the tooth fairy also you pos!

      September 20, 2011 at 10:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Aony

      [Quote]Folks, let's not forget the law is the law and the officials are elected to uphold these laws regardless of political, racial or personal opinions.[/Quote/]
      You forget it is open to interpretation. It isn't as simple as you made it out to be. And it is naive of you to think that officials are some sort of automatons free from prejudice. If you are paying close attention to news, you would know that a black guy in Texas was sentenced to death base on a testimony of bigot witness despite Texas law that proscribes judges from accepting such. As far as this article concern, I'm expecting prosecutor would say this – "we are right. Those who against us are misinformed."

      September 20, 2011 at 11:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • fretlessbass

      "but you're not supposed to find people guilty unless there is a reasonable doubt." Uh, try again...

      September 21, 2011 at 3:17 am | Report abuse |
    • whatever

      Can you really rely on these people recanting their stores 20 years later??? Maybe if they recanted a lot sooner, it may have changed the fate of this man. Seriously. Think about it on your own.

      September 21, 2011 at 11:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • MagnoliasAndMolotovs

      Whatever, the recants took place long before this week. They have been brought up several times and ignored.

      September 22, 2011 at 12:26 am | Report abuse |
  13. sizziline

    I don't believe in the death penalty cause it is not up to man to decide people should die that's god work and I hate troy will be put to death tomorrow they should have gave him clemecy long time ago its just not fair all these people around the world with support have did the best they can do but it is mainly mcphail mother ,ex wife and his kids keep pushing that he be exucuted that's the problem that's the main problem. And that's what the parole people looking at the best interest for his family

    September 20, 2011 at 10:34 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • USMC 00001

      Well the guy will never walk the streets again to kill another person or even attempt to

      September 21, 2011 at 1:54 pm | Report abuse |
  14. sameeker

    Would he be on death row if he was rich?

    September 20, 2011 at 10:40 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • JusticeforMcPhailsFamily

      Would he would have killed McPhail if the officer was black? Why are hate crimes so one-sided. Anyone believe this was a hate crime?

      September 20, 2011 at 10:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • whatever

      Heck yeah it was a hate crime. But since the cop is white, nothing will be done. White people just don't scream and whoop and holler as loud.

      September 21, 2011 at 11:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • MagnoliasAndMolotovs

      In a word–NO.

      September 22, 2011 at 12:26 am | Report abuse |
    • 4Real

      Would he have shot a police officer if he was rich.. Probably not, but he probably wouldn't have been trying to beat up and rob a homeless guy of his beer if he was rich.

      September 22, 2011 at 2:01 am | Report abuse |
  15. Benjamin

    He's hiding behind GA law; that's so cowardly. I'm all for justice, and maybe Davis really did commit the crime, but state-sponsored murder is not justice; it's eye for an eye, and it's especially crude when we can't even have certainty beyond a reasonable doubt

    September 20, 2011 at 10:40 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • 4Real

      It is justice. You take a life, you forfeit your own. Plain, simple, just.

      September 22, 2011 at 2:00 am | Report abuse |
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