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. Bryan C

    Prosecutors believe that the convicted are guilty, even when DNA evidence exonerates them! Is this a surprise/news/weak journalism/FoxNews/fair and balanced or just complete bollocks?

    September 20, 2011 at 10:41 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Dana

      Brian, I don't think this is the case here. However, I agree with you when new evidence or corrected/updated evidence is found, the courts sure do drag their feet to let the person go. Or they come up with a scheme to exonerate them with a hitch like the West Memphis Three. This is not justice. Justice is not perfect either, but our court system believes it is the final say and they are never wrong about anything.

      September 20, 2011 at 11:18 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Watchdog

    If there is so much doubt about innocence. why not grant m clemency and commute to life sentence untill they get there ignoranc out of there a–

    September 20, 2011 at 10:43 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  3. jama8canpops

    Of course the prosecutor would have no problem.All he is interested in is that he has "won" the case.He would rather die than admit that a possible mistake has been made.These guys are more dangerous than some of the criminals they prosecute.They can kill you "legally"I wonder where his hood and white sheet are!I hope the fleas of a thousand camels infests his armpits.

    September 20, 2011 at 10:44 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Dana

      Well said!

      September 20, 2011 at 11:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • USMC 00001

      yeah i'm sure he wakes up everyday hoping to kill someone. It's his job to uphold the law and to prosecute all those who don't. The mere fact that the guy attempted to shoot and kill someone earlier really does'nt help his case as to killing Officer Macphail. Besides it's not the prosecutor who charges him its the jury and several of them were African American.

      September 21, 2011 at 2:00 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Christa

    This case really saddens me. This is a travesty of justice. He has done over 20 years and they have stayed his execution 3 times...This is no longer justice, that is cruel and unusual. You cannot put someone to death based on eyewitness account and nothing else. If his execution does not get the laws in this country changed...then God help you if someone gets mad at you and decides to say that you killed someone and they saw you when you didn't. How can this happen in this country? Might as well be a mob with pitchforks and a rope to hang him. Have we not progressed at all?

    September 20, 2011 at 10:46 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Brent

      Amen!

      September 20, 2011 at 10:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Andrew

      The article said there were gun shell casings from another shooting the guy did the same night that matched.

      That's not just finding him guilty based on someone's testimony. What was he doing shooting at someone else that night (even though the first shooting was non-fatal), and how does he overcome that the bullet-shell-casings match from the two shootings? That to me is hard physical evidence that he did the second fatal shooting that night too.

      September 20, 2011 at 11:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dana

      Gun casings may have been found, but how does it tie to Davis? There wasn't a weapon found. Were his fingerprints on the casings?

      September 20, 2011 at 11:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • USMC 00001

      @ dana Well obviously he hid the weapon. It's not that hard to go bury it in the middle of nowhere or throw into a lake or something never to be found. Use some common sense. Besides if he didnt kill the second guy then why didnt he report that someone stole his weapon.

      September 21, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Scratch

      Dana, he was also convicted of the first shooting. As far as I know, there has been no claim that he didn't do the first shooting. So if the casings match from the first shooting and the second shooting...you do the math.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:55 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Hugo

    I wonder if he really told CNN "no doubt." There's a reason that's not the test in a criminal trial. There's such a thing as unreasonable doubt. If there's unreasonable doubt, then "no doubt" is false. A lawyer really should know better. Of course, I don't know if CNN is reporting accurately....

    September 20, 2011 at 10:47 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  6. T Rock

    Well did you think he would admit it if he thought he got it wrong? The prosecuter's job is to win convictions.

    September 20, 2011 at 10:47 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  7. jon

    Bull-Hockey.

    You cannot have "no doubt" unless the guy says, "yes I did this". I personally think that anyone willing to sentence someone to death should have to take the life, pull the switch, or whatever the method is so they can worry about their soul or the equivalent.

    That way when we look back and know someone is innocent they can say "Oh crud that was me.

    September 20, 2011 at 10:47 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  8. clinky

    The prosecutor sidesteps some important points. It is not surprising that reluctant witnesses would finally come forward to recant only when an execution date is near: especially if they felt coerced by the police, as some said they were. The judicial system seems especially unprepared to deal with this aspect of police putting pressure on witnesses. (It's kind of like Thomas/Hill all over again: The establishment isn't equipped to even imagine a person of high authority and stature, Thomas, could do something foul and underhanded.) We didn't have one or two witnesses recant, but seven out of nine, which is remarkable, and that large number is extremely hard to explain away as induced by the defense team (who, unlike the police, cannot act under color of authority). Also, matching shell casings aren't very compelling if a common weapon model was used, and besides, that's hardly enough to go on for putting someone to death. The weapon was never found.

    After reading the article, I'm left with the question, Where is the watertight evidence the prosecutor claims to have produced?

    September 20, 2011 at 10:49 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Kelly

    I am really bothered by the statements made by this prosecutor. And actually, offended by him. From what I read, it doesn't sound like the prosecution took the time they should have to investigate the recantations. A man's life is at stake here, they could at least do some investigation. Maybe they did but it doesn't come across here. Also, the shell casings from both shootings ended up in the same bag? How inept is that?? Sounds like they should have been thrown out. I am truly appalled. It is interesting how he took the time to defend the prosecution but he only made it look worse for them in my opinion. Very tragic.

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

      If the Shell Casings from both Shootings Davis was convicted of doing in the same city (Savanah GA) the same night, were all the same (i.e. same type shot from same gun), both sets ended up in the same Evidence Bag, that error does not disprove he did the 2nd fatal shooting. Because the Shell Casings found at both shooting locations were the same type. If some were different, then it would prove the gunman / weapon used in the two shootings that night in Savanah GA were different. But fact that the shell casings were all the same type, makes it an extremely high probability it was the same criminal that night who did a non-fatal shooting in Savanah GA earlier and then when cornered by the Cops later same night in Savanah GA he shot the cop. Since article says he was convicted of the first (non fatal) shooting, and same Shell Casings found at both crime-scenes same night, to overturn his Murder Conviction for the 2nd fatal shooting, you'd have to also believe he was wrongfully convicted of the first shooting that night in same city.

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

      @Andrew : Finding the same kind of shell casing in both crime scenes isn't conclusive evidence that he was indeed cop killer UNLESS the gun is so uncommon that not many people owns it OR shell casing has serial number that tells the package they belongs to. Otherwise, handing out death sentence base on the weak evidence is just an abject failure of justice system.

      September 21, 2011 at 12:04 am | Report abuse |
    • Scratch

      Aony, they didn't just find that the casings were the same type or the same brand. They found that the casings were fired FROM THE SAME GUN. You can match a casing to a weapon just like you can match a bullet to a weapon.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:59 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Auggydoggie

    Georgia rules..... Do the crime, pay the price. Shoulda thought about that when he grinned and capped the officer in the face. Not so funny now, is it?

    September 20, 2011 at 10:57 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  11. willsetufree

    Well, since we all suddenly know so much about this 20 year old case, lcourtesy of the media and a bunch of celebs, let's go help O.J. find the real killers.

    September 20, 2011 at 10:59 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Aaron

    The prosecutor didn't really explain what facts and evidence made it clear why the critics are wrong. Seems to me that he could have laid some of that out.

    September 20, 2011 at 11:00 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Lord Vader

    Nancy Grace also felt that her victims she prosecuted as both a district attorney AND her own show....... Look how many cases she did turned out not being guilty and the same for her show! If Davis gets executed, I will cease to conduct business with any Georgia based company..... Starting with Coca Cola, Home Depot, etc.....

    September 20, 2011 at 11:01 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • DT1979

      That's an a$$ backwards way of thinking....you must have a lot of time on your hands.

      September 21, 2011 at 11:31 am | Report abuse |
  14. Amill

    This is standard "stick to your guns" prosecutor behavior. I really believe this prosecutor has false imprisoned an innocent man and he's making us all part to his unjustified murder. Cops have a very poor track record of apprehending to real perpetrator unless DNA is involved. Too many times we've seen behavior from prosecutors and law enforcement that seems like they are unfeeling sociopath's with license to crucify innocent people. Tomorrow we'll have 2 victims and still no justice.

    September 20, 2011 at 11:02 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  15. willsetufree

    Well, since we all suddenly know so much about this 20 year old case, courtesy of the media and a bunch of celebs, let's go help find the proverbial real killers.

    September 20, 2011 at 11:03 pm | Report abuse | Reply
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