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. Inflammatory statement

    Put this cop killer down!

    September 21, 2011 at 4:21 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • David Shelly

      What a great judeo christian country we live in. Hey all you bible beaters lining up to push the plunger on Troy davisis lethal injection I have just one question: WWJD?? (what would jesus do)

      September 21, 2011 at 4:33 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Frank in midtown

    All the prosecutors in the cases reversed by the Innocence Project were confident in the findings of the jury. Over 100 innocent men have been set free despite the confidence of their prosecutor.

    September 21, 2011 at 4:22 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Kareen

    A number of Procecutors have insisted a person is guilty, yet DNA found them innocent many years later after a person sat on death row for many years.
    I wonder how many innocent people have been procecuted in the USA and 1 IS TOO MANY.
    .

    September 21, 2011 at 4:25 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  4. hippediva

    This prosecutor is just protecting himself. Why NOT let Davis take a polygraph? What's wrong is that Lawton doesn't want to prove himself an idiot.

    September 21, 2011 at 4:27 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Rich

      Polygraphs are not completely reliable, thus they are not permitted as a device to establish guilt or innocence. If they were, your rights could be stripped from you by a faulty machine's determination of your testimony.

      September 21, 2011 at 5:02 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Steve

    There is just something about the South. I would never live down there. What makes this so bad is.....what if Sylvester Coles(the friend) really killed the cop? Y'all would be looking like dummies. Just give the guy life without parole. But no another BLACK man sentenced to death....YIPPIE smh

    September 21, 2011 at 4:27 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • seriously?

      This has nothing to do with him being in the south. I'm from the south and love it here but do not support the death penalty. If something arises contrary to the case, the south would not look like dummies, the entire USA would from an international perspective. It's not about the location. It's about the idiots involved. Many states that are not in the south have a death penalty, and I'm sure situations just like this happen there. Stop hating on the south for ridiculous reasons like this.

      September 21, 2011 at 5:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • j519

      i enjoy reading just how ignorant alot of people are. this case isn;t about black or white. a man killed another and was convicted by a jury of his peers. always trying to play the same race-card gets to showing your real intent.most of your kind are'nt happy unless they causing problems with your fellow man. keep complaining and trying to lie to yourself. I am only upset about all the money it has caust the georgia taxpayers to feed and pay this killers legal fees. only an hour and half to go then on to next.

      September 21, 2011 at 5:29 pm | Report abuse |
  6. gosh

    What if this man Troy was really innocent???? The wrong person put to death by (in)justice!

    September 21, 2011 at 4:27 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Steve

      my pont exactly....something is really fishy about that Coles guy

      September 21, 2011 at 4:30 pm | Report abuse |
  7. godless and happier than you

    If he's truly innocent, god will save him, just kidding, lol

    September 21, 2011 at 4:28 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Steve

      you may be kidding but Troy can turn out much better than you

      September 21, 2011 at 4:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • godless and happier than you

      i don't see how...i haven't murdered anyone, am decent, caring and moral. are you suggesting that by rejecting your religion just as you reject others, e.g., Islam, that i'm going to an imaginary hell? how just would that be for an upstanding father like me to go to a hell for eternity while a profligate murderer would enjoy paradise? your god as depicted in the bible is more immoral than this turd who will eventually like you and me become nothinginess.

      September 21, 2011 at 4:53 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Stranger1980

    Everyone knows what will happen once this guy is put down. You will see thousands marching at the WH.

    September 21, 2011 at 4:35 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  9. rapidone

    "When it's in a court, you get disciplined thinking. We've won every time the thinking has been disciplined."

    Sounds like: "When it's in a Georgia court and when we've controlled witnesses and the courtroom in general, we get the results that we want. We call this 'disciplined thinking'."

    Lol–whatever really happened, I can tell you from the words that this prosecutor uses in his justifications–he should not be seen as credible and objective in the least.

    September 21, 2011 at 4:39 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • godless and happier than you

      more than likely he means a reasoned and methodological approach to assessing the veracity of factual claims rather than emotional and substandard approach to truth finding we see practiced outside court rooms.

      September 21, 2011 at 5:23 pm | Report abuse |
  10. KillTheCopKiller

    Let's juice Davis now!

    September 21, 2011 at 4:48 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  11. P.Ha

    This is sad

    September 21, 2011 at 4:50 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Wayne

    The prosecutor "told CNN he has no doubt about Davis' guilt. He said he believes supporters have been misinformed about the facts of the case." On what does he base his belief? His own opinions? Intuition? What?

    September 21, 2011 at 4:52 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • godless and happier than you

      i think he articulated it fairly well in the article but suffice it to say, he knows that facts and understands the subtle nuances of misapprehensions of the facts which contributed to the distortions portrayed in the media.

      September 21, 2011 at 5:30 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Kareem-O-Wheat

    Give Troy another chance! Give Troy another chance!

    September 21, 2011 at 4:54 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  14. really

    Was this guy at the scene of a murder? Did he fire at someone with intent to kill??

    If he was planning and attempted to kill someone he deserves the death penalty whether he achieved his goal or not.

    September 21, 2011 at 4:55 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  15. bup

    Of course he has no doubt – if he did have doubt, he would recommend to the state to look into overturning the conviction. He'd probably be disbarred if he did have doubts but didn't make them known.

    That doesn't mean he's right, though. He has *twenty years* of bias looking at this case from a prosecutors' standpoint.

    September 21, 2011 at 4:56 pm | Report abuse | Reply
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