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. Donald

    Of course this maggot is going to stand by his "conviction". He had lots to gain from this case. Not to worry, he'll fry in hell while Davis is at peace in heaven.

    September 20, 2011 at 11:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • jakinak

      Sounds like a man of integrity to me, but then there are so few of those around these days...

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

      Wow you're stupid. I'm glad you're just expressing your opinion on CNN comments and aren't actually in charge of anything important.

      September 20, 2011 at 11:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • ufool

      Maggot? So your last encounter with police, hope it wasn't to painful

      September 20, 2011 at 11:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike davis

      Fry in he'll? You must then believe in that heaven and hell thing?A religious guy maybe even believe in Christ?.What would he do? My understanding he would forgive,as he did on the cross!! What the hell are you thinking heaven only knows??

      September 20, 2011 at 11:58 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Moonbeam

    Wasn't Lindsay Lohan's charges for cocaine possession dropped because an officer accidentally threw away the foil or whatever it was that contained the cocaine and then retrieved it from the wastebasket? It seems like shell casings mixed up in a bag would be a much bigger cause for doubt.

    September 20, 2011 at 11:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • atbigfoot91

      Evidently, not in Georgia.

      September 20, 2011 at 11:45 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Dr. Aingre G

    So crazy how everybody was so ready to execute Casey Anthony right there in the courtroom, but yet so ready to protect this guy. Why do people feel it is forgivable to kill an adult but not a child? In all honesty, we should forgive them all and let God handle it....but my whole point really is just me asking, why the difference? Be blessed.

    September 20, 2011 at 11:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • HopeFloats

      The simple answer is people think Davis is innocent and Anthony is guilty. Does that clear things up a bit? They may not be right, but that is what they think.

      September 20, 2011 at 11:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Joe

      Heads up,

      There is not god. Sorry.

      September 20, 2011 at 11:44 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Charlie

    Wow, what a revelation! The PROSECUTING ATTORNEY says there's no doubt he's guilty? Whodathunk?

    September 20, 2011 at 11:26 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Kate

    Dear Mr. Spencer Lawton,
    I hope henceforth you will never again know a peaceful night of sleep. The heavy burden of killing an innocent man rests on your shoulders for all of your days. You pose a far greater danger to society than any man or woman sitting on death row because you can kill and "legally" get away with it. The only "deterent" you face is the mirror on your wall.

    "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,...."
    The public realm! Who are "THE PEOPLE" you have sworn to represent as an officer of the court if not the public?

    "we have consistently won the case as it has been presented in court." I'm glad you mentioned that, Mr. Lawton. You alone do not carry the burden of killing an innocent man. This same prospect applies to every individual who has played a hand in sending Mr. Davis to his death. Fools you are, each and everyone of you.

    September 20, 2011 at 11:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • atbigfoot91

      He doesn't give a flying fvck, dude.

      September 20, 2011 at 11:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mr haddayordecadesincourts

      I think he will never have a sleepless night. He proved his case over and over again. You might not accept that. No case has ever withstood such scrutiny as this one. I suggest you remove emotion and look at hard facts.

      September 20, 2011 at 11:59 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Michael

    Most of those convicted of murder are guilty – yes – I believe this.
    I am not familiar with this case but I am opposed to the death penalty based on the fact that justice is a commodity – just like buying a car. Anger – Revenge – Reciprocity – I understand – but I would not give the government any power over life – it is just common sense.

    September 20, 2011 at 11:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Aony

      You have unrealistic faith in justice system. Don't forget it's man made and prone to error and failure.Just google wrongful conviction and you'll be surprise to find out there are too many.

      September 21, 2011 at 12:09 am | Report abuse |
  7. That's not Justice

    7 out of 9 people recanted and they're still going to kill the guy just shows the justice system is racist and unfair to African Americans. Where is this evidence that takes all doubt away that Troy Davis is not innocent? Boycott everything and never except whatever this is they are about to do.

    September 20, 2011 at 11:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • atbigfoot91

      I don't think you can boycott the justice system. What you CAN do is vote. Georgia politics have swung to the right of Ghengis Khan in recent years and when it comes to justice, the right is usually wrong. The rare exception out of Georgia this time is ex-congressman Bob Barr who himself is extremely right wing and is calling for the postponement of this execution.

      September 20, 2011 at 11:40 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Jack

    I'm amazed at some of these comments! Nobody here, including myself, can possibly know enough about this case to arrive at an informed judgment, but many have clearly made up their minds that this is a miscarriage of justice, based on little more than emotion! I for one trust the prosecution more than the accused or the defense. And the Pope? I would have thought he has more important things to do, like getting rid of droves of pedophile priests, and have them prosecuted...

    September 20, 2011 at 11:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • atbigfoot91

      Sorry, dude. Seven out of nine witnesses recanting their testimony is enough to stop an execution. I don't care HOW stupid YOUR argument is.

      September 20, 2011 at 11:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Greg Gilbert

      atbigfoot: .... and in 50 to 70 years they all will have recanted because the remaining 2 will probably have alzheimers. That recantation story is irrelevant. Of course memories fade over time, but he was found guilty when they were certain of it, under oath. I've heard the defense is harrasing the last remaining jurors to recant too. I'm not surprised they recanted.

      September 20, 2011 at 11:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • clinky

      Jack, What several of us are waiting for is some evidence solid enough to pass the reasonable doubt test. The U.S. system is supposed to encourage citizens to be skeptical, inquire and ask questions about its government and powers. The people on this board raising points of doubt are doing that.

      September 20, 2011 at 11:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • HopeFloats

      No one is asking you to trust the accused and prosecution enough to kill someone.

      September 20, 2011 at 11:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • HopeFloats

      I meant to say "accused and defense" as opposed to "accused and prosecution." In the words of Spinal Tap, "such a fine line between clever and stupid." :)

      September 20, 2011 at 11:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • atbigfoot91

      To Greg Gilbert. The recantation story would not be irrelevant if it was YOUR a$$ that was about to fry.

      September 20, 2011 at 11:48 pm | Report abuse |
  9. atbigfoot91

    This is what ALL prosecutors say at this stage. They don't want to look like a fool and they will let an innocent man fry before they will let it happen. It is a rare prosecutor indeed that will put ethics and integrity over how they appear to their colleagues and the public.

    September 20, 2011 at 11:33 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Tom

    This Prosecuting Attorney has not cleared up anything. So they mixed up all the shell casings from two separate cases in one bag. And witnesses have recanted their testimony for a variety of reasons. And the witnesses were never cross examined. Is this the system of justice that we all want if and when we may face a capital murder conviction?

    September 20, 2011 at 11:40 pm | Report abuse |
  11. hill

    Hang em' high....20 years too late however.

    September 20, 2011 at 11:41 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Ron

    Huh, so this guy gets the death sentence but the guy that shot and killed (premeditated) my Brother-in-law, an on-duty policy officer in Georgia in 96', gets out in 15 years. Something is going wrong with the system, both should fry for their crimes...

    September 20, 2011 at 11:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • heshotanotherthatnight

      Sorry to hear about your loss. Makes you wonder why our system doesn't value life enough to impose the death penalty when someone steels an innocent life. Steeling a life is serious enough for the death penalty!

      September 20, 2011 at 11:50 pm | Report abuse |
  13. James Martin

    If we as a society say you deserve death for a crime, aren't we also condemning our society? After all, we are killing someone so our society deserves to die.

    September 20, 2011 at 11:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • heshotanotherthatnight

      It's easy to distance yourself from reality with fancy talk. Let's talk reality, speaking like you do means you have no idea the pain a murder causes.

      Your blabber is not relevant to what really happens.

      September 20, 2011 at 11:55 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Lenny Pincus

    If I had a dollar every time a prosecutor was wrong, I'd be Mitt Romney.

    September 20, 2011 at 11:47 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Greg Gilbert

    I see lots of idiots that believe in Trial by media. I can hear you all now.... but the media says a lot of witnesses recanted.... but the media says this.....but the media say that..... but your IQ points say this..... Too bad, So sad! The world is a complicated place for fools.

    September 20, 2011 at 11:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • atbigfoot91

      About that last thing you said: You should know.

      September 20, 2011 at 11:53 pm | Report abuse |
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