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. Hulu

    Howdy yall

    September 21, 2011 at 11:09 pm | Report abuse |
  2. lawrence

    If you ask people about this case, I think 99.999999% of the answers will be "who cares? Not me."

    September 21, 2011 at 11:11 pm | Report abuse |
  3. larry stone

    thank god another piece of crap done not about the cop what about the the other guy he killed before the cop should have hanged him and burned him in puplic

    September 21, 2011 at 11:23 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Baruch

    A trial is a moment in time. When 7 out of 9 witnesses recant their testimony and some of them claim police coercion, then that moment in time must recognized as not being definitive. That is called LEARNING, and THINKING. Just following blindly is foolish and, in situations like this, truly evil. The prosecutors certainty is not surprising, he is a part of the system that sees everything in black and white. He is 100% biased. That is his job. His perspective is also not definitive.

    The US is descending further everyday into meanness and immorality. The joy some people take in the suffering and death of others is sick sick sick. I mean executions, war, and all the nastiness that some folks embrace.

    After WWII many americans were disgusted with the germans for what they had allowed their country to become. The united states has now become that same hateful mean spirited place. It's very sad.

    September 21, 2011 at 11:26 pm | Report abuse |
  5. larry stone

    merry you are the racist own up to it the piece of crap smugh ass hole should be dead thank you lord

    September 21, 2011 at 11:28 pm | Report abuse |
  6. jabby

    The Death Penalty is a proven determent to crime. No one who has been executed has ever committed another crime.

    September 21, 2011 at 11:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • opus512

      Cameron Todd Willingham.

      September 21, 2011 at 11:42 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Jordan

    All the people who went for Troy Davis's Slaying... Are horrible and moraless people

    September 21, 2011 at 11:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • whatever

      And Tony Davis was an innocent man after shooting two people? We're the immoral ones? Wow, are you backwards.

      September 21, 2011 at 11:38 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Jim

    I guess it don't matter one way or the other now. Dead as of 11:08pm ET.
    Now can we get back to the things that affect us all such as the economy and jobs instead of engulfing our lives in a convicted criminals 20 year long plea bargain...

    September 21, 2011 at 11:29 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Shame on you Georgia

    Shame on you Georgia. Can't give the guy a lousy lie detector. Can't worry about coerced testimony. Can't worry about evidence getting mixed up in the evidence bag. Just wind up the state execution machine because *someone* must pay. Doesn't really matter if it's the right guy, does it?

    Shame on you Georgia. If this man is innocent, then the prosecutor and the judges at every level are every bit as guilty of murder as they claim he is. Murder by the state is still murder. Y'all think killing is the Christian thing to do? What would Jesus say? You *know* what he would say, because he told you most clearly. You're simply unchristian, and backwards.

    Shame on you Georgia. It is amazing how people who feel the government can't regulate businesses or provide health care at the same time feel the government is absolutely error-free when it comes to determining who gets the death penalty. Shame.

    September 21, 2011 at 11:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bayousara

      Now, when is Casey Anthony scheduled to die for murdering her two-year-old little girl????

      September 21, 2011 at 11:37 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Pilfer

    "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."

    Seems this should have made these casings inadmissible as evidence in either trial. How is this even possible, the detective a total moron?

    September 21, 2011 at 11:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • sparknut

      It's the South and the accused was Black. What more do you need to know?

      September 22, 2011 at 12:04 am | Report abuse |
  11. Bayousara

    Well, Mr. Prosecutor, you have made a place for yourself in Georgia, the U.S. and maybe even the world! Your job is more secure than ever, and that is all you ever cared about, isn't it? Don't get too fat on your laurels, sir, or you might have a heart attack or a stroke while in a giddy state.

    September 21, 2011 at 11:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • MagnoliasAndMolotovs

      Spencer Lawton was always a grand-stander and was never one to let the truth get in the way of a conviction. He got caught MANY times manipulating/planting/removing/faking evidence and "forgetting" to introduce sometimes crucial evidence. That was part of the reason the people of Chatham County finally dumped his sorry self.

      September 22, 2011 at 12:05 am | Report abuse |
  12. whatever

    Executing this man was the right thing to do. He had already shot a man prior to killing a cop. Who knows what else he did that he never got caught for? Anyone who kills another, not from self defense, should be killed. Anyone who kills a cop should be killed. Period.

    September 21, 2011 at 11:36 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Pilfer

    THis prosecutor is a piece of crap. He openly admitted he never considered Sylvester Cole a suspect. Even though Sylvester Cole was present, fingered Davis, was witnessed to have been the killer, AND has later bragged he was the killer after the killing. He also admitted having a gun at the time of the killing.

    September 21, 2011 at 11:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • MagnoliasAndMolotovs

      Not to mention, Cole was ID'd as the killer by several of the witnesses who testified they were coerced into saying it was Davis.

      September 22, 2011 at 12:06 am | Report abuse |
  14. Pilfer

    “I was scared that if I didn’t do what the police wanted me to do, then they would try to lock me up again. … From the way the officer was talking, he gave me the impression that I should say that Troy Davis was the one who shot the officer, like the other witness [sic] had. … I told the detective that Troy Davis was the shooter, even though the truth was that I didn’t see who shot the officer. … I had four children at that time, and I was taking care of them myself. I couldn’t go back to jail. I felt like I didn’t have any choice but to get up there and testify to what I said in my earlier statements.” —Dorothy Ferrell

    September 21, 2011 at 11:41 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Russ

    This sort of event is precisely why I no longer live in the US. When I read this, I'm embarrassed to call myself an American, so I don't. Your country is headed down the tubes and the rest of the world is watching with astonishment. I say, "Good riddance" you idiot fools.

    September 21, 2011 at 11:51 pm | Report abuse |
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