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. stephaniemz

    I didn't realize the prosecutor was present during this crime....that's the only way he could know 100%.

    September 20, 2011 at 9:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mark

      Exactly – is he saying that he was there? This prosecutor would rather put to death another human being than to admit that he would actually convict an innocent person of something they may not have done. I think he needs to locate his integrity and perhaps lose his pride.

      September 20, 2011 at 9:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Supremo Lagarto

      If he truly has no doubt when there was no physical evidence and most of the witnesses admitted they lied, then he is obviously incompetent and should be fired.

      September 20, 2011 at 10:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Alex

      Since no prosecutors are ever present at any crimes, are you saying that every single criminal trials is questionable?

      September 20, 2011 at 10:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Reality Check

      The reporter didn't bother to ask the DA about the reports of police threats and intimidation made to witnesses, the lack of physical evidence in this case, or the notorious unreliability of eye witness identification. Nor did he bother to ask the DA his theory of why seven of nine witnesses have recanted.

      Is this stenography or journalism?

      September 20, 2011 at 10:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Supremo Lagarto

      At Alex: No we are saying the prosecutor is making a dumb statement and that he is incompetent and corrupt.

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

      Its the prosecutor's job to be certain of guilt. What's stupid is that someone asked him this question.

      September 21, 2011 at 8:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kai

      Um, prosecutors aren't usually present at ANY crimes, genius. By your reasoning, nobody should ever be tried. This is why you don't work in the legal field.

      September 21, 2011 at 11:46 pm | Report abuse |
  2. American History X

    He talked all that garbage, but STILL did not say there was any evidence to indict Davis to the crime! All his did was talk about his beliefs. The burden of proof is on the state to prove that it IS true. The burden of proof is not on Davis' attorney to prove that it is NOT true. The prosecutor just made himself look foolish. Evidence in the same bag from different CASES?????

    September 20, 2011 at 9:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Alex

      Did you miss the trial where the prosecutor laid out the proof and won the case? Do you think he should now redo the trial again? Perhaps we should pass the law to retrial every cases after every twenty years.

      September 20, 2011 at 9:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Supremo Lagarto

      At Alex, the proof was tainted and proof that would have set Troy free was with held from the court.

      September 20, 2011 at 10:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kevin

      Alex, did YOU miss the part where 7 of the 9 witnesses retracted their statements? Where another man confessed to the crime? I don't blame the jury, I don't even blame the prosecutor. But this is a case where if the trial were held today and those seven people took the stand and say what they are now saying, he probably walks free. This was a cop murder in Georgia. Somebody was going to go down.

      September 20, 2011 at 10:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • jane

      who confessed to the crime?

      September 21, 2011 at 6:20 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Death On Two Legs

    But now you can kiss your ass goodbye! Duh...of course the prosecutor is going to say he has no doubt the dud's guilty!

    September 20, 2011 at 9:40 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Keith Ward

    Just once I would like to know what reasons the 7 that recanted their testimony gave for doing so. Doesn't anyone know?

    September 20, 2011 at 9:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Alex

      Two reason. One, they lie at the trial and now telling the truth. Two, after twenty years, their memory of the event has faded and they began to question there memory. There is also the pressure of the execution coming up soon that make them second guess themselves.

      September 20, 2011 at 9:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Brett

      At the time many of the witnesses were not only young. They were very young. Teenagers. Michael Collins in particular. 16 years old I think. At trial he was still young. Claims Made. Collins claims he was threatened by police with getting the death penalty himself if he did not go along with the police. Larry Young was also also bullied and refused medical treatment. One man couldn`t read the statement which he signed. The court said that the man didn`t argue about what was put in the statement by the police recorder but that presumes that what was recorded was honestly recorded by police which is a big assumption to be made when there are so many people pointing at the police as guilty of continued harassment and manipulation. Another women was offered legal help from Lawton if she lied. Another claims she was afraid of coming forward because she had been threatened by Red Coles. A relative of Red Coles claims he was also afraid of coming forward because of Red. Others also claimed to have been bullied by the police, not allowed to leave. One pregnant woman who had just got out of prison felt she would be in danger of going back there if she did not say what the police wanted her to say. Another man was actually out on parole and out past his curfew and so didn`t want to get himself in trouble. Others just got confused at trial and felt natural pressure to point the picture at Davis. He was sitting there looking guilty and they had also gone through interviews with police who had conveniently presented the picture of Davis to them. Later these people admitted that they really couldn`t say for sure who it was. People aren`t as smart as you think. They average person also wants to believe that the police are right. They want to go along with what appears to be accurate. I have experienced this myself, I saw a car crash directly in front of me but for the life of me I didn`t know who came from where and who`s fault it was. I stayed at the scene because I thought that a witness present might encourage the participants to tell the truth from the beginning. The police started to run through the sequence as told by the people involved and I found myself agreeing and saying yes, I think so etc and then I had to stop myself and say you know I really don`t understand what happened and I can`t recall exactly who came from where. I think it was the same for many witnesses, they really didn`t consider how being agreeable was going to put a guy on death row. When you get older, and you start to think about the significance of what you said in case like this. The years that it took witnesses to see where they went wrong has many reasons. The witnesses and people who testified don`t get together in support of each other, they all just hold their small mistakes privately until they are personally ready to see it as significant. The legal system I am also sure is not really open to receiving information on a case which is closed and which they want to remain closed. The prosecution had information that the testimony of the lady who had said Davis smiled when he shot the officer and yet they did not pass on that this complete recant for what? One and a half years. The Defense, further, had a lot of this information in the years following the trial but they did not have the resources with which to build a convincing argument in order to bring a retrial. This is a legal problem started with Bill Clinton who created new rules as a way to curb the false appeals that the legal system was getting bogged down under. So many of the claims that existed were not given a fair chance to be heard. If it was a case of non-payment of rent you could say the trial was fair enough but in a murder case we need to be prepared for greater consideration. So this information really didn`t see the light of day that is get offered as part of a new trail because it didn`t prove innocence even though it does prove that a guilty verdict should not have been found.

      You can also see now on the Television when some of the witnesses are talking about their recant or their with held information. The witnesses don`t say everything they could say, they are not always aware of which information is crucial to the case. Michael Collins will say that everything recorded in his testimony was just what the police put in there. He didn`t say on camera explicitly....Troy Davis did not hit Larry Young. But if the presenter would ask him this ....what would he say? The questions crucial to the prosecutions case need to be asked of these witnesses in order for the public to make a proper judgement on guilt or innocence but there is already enough enough information to show that a guilt verdict should not been given either to Red Coles or Troy Davis in this case as it stands

      September 21, 2011 at 9:42 am | Report abuse |
  5. jan

    This case which has already been resolved in a court of law has no place in the politcal arena of the people who are acting on sheer emotion , not fact. It's shrewd for the defendent to get the media and the people to back him, hence to stall the inevitable...the death sentence. These common criminal commit heinous crimes against society, lacking any respect for other, community, or the law. If allowed to operate on their level with their agendas would be a crime against the decent, rational people who have no other desire then to live in a safe and peaceful society. Continue on and show him and others who commit these crimes that they are deviants to society, and there is no place for them to live among us. Maintain our system of laws and justice..

    September 20, 2011 at 9:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kevin

      Possible the best fairy tale I've ever read. There is no justice with the death penalty. Please.....educate yourself. Spend a few hours reading about it, anything, your choice. You are bound to come across facts which surely would make any rational person sick to their stomach.

      September 20, 2011 at 10:07 pm | Report abuse |
  6. just ice

    Thank you Lawton for standing your ground on this matter. Justice is slowly slipping away from true innocent people in this country.

    September 20, 2011 at 9:44 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Dennis

    Mmmmmmm

    September 20, 2011 at 9:51 pm | Report abuse |
  8. pooflingingmonkey

    Boycott Georgia. Hit these backward asses morons where it hurts.

    September 20, 2011 at 9:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • DT1979

      Moron troll....your name speaks for you.

      September 21, 2011 at 11:22 am | Report abuse |
  9. Dennis

    It's all about thr color of the skin and that's that

    September 20, 2011 at 9:53 pm | Report abuse |
  10. just ice

    Davis shot someone in the face at a pool party. That alone should be enough for death penalty. On top of that the shell casings found at the officers scene matched his at the pool. People are just creating doubt becuase the fool tossed his gun. Quit making it easy for criminals to do as they please.

    September 20, 2011 at 9:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sarah

      Perhaps you should actually read the facts regarding the alleged shooting at the pool party. It was proven that he was not involved with it.

      September 20, 2011 at 10:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike B

      Thank you just ice. I'm not pro death penalty; definitely feel sadness for the 100+ innocents who have been wrongly executed, but this mfer deserves to fry. And feel it.

      September 20, 2011 at 10:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike B

      Sarah, I have read the facts. This dude shot another guy at a party – his fingerprints are on the shell casings! I guess YOU needed to be there for proof?!

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

      Sarah, he was convicted of that crime.

      September 21, 2011 at 3:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Erik

      You're a liar... the shell casings comparison was inconclusive.

      October 2, 2011 at 2:36 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Herb

    God is the judge and if Davis has given his life to Christ, he will be in heaven with the Lord forever. Those who have not sinned cast the first stone. Lord, forgive them for they not not what they do. If you are not saved, the time is now. Davis has been whitnessed to but what about you. Do you know him? Do you want the peace that goes beyond understanding? Please ask the Lord to come into your life and say the sinner prayer.

    September 20, 2011 at 9:56 pm | Report abuse |
  12. just ice

    Live by the sword die by the sword. Eye for an eye.

    September 20, 2011 at 9:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Duabert

      Does that mean that you support executing the prosecutor and the parole board, then?

      September 20, 2011 at 10:13 pm | Report abuse |
  13. WillH85

    So if we execute people for killing innocent and it turns out this prosecutor has convicted and caused the death of an innocent person, shouldn't they face the death penalty. This guy's probably innocent and he's about to die and the prosecutor's more worried about his record than human life. Hope there's a special spot in hell for him.

    September 20, 2011 at 10:03 pm | Report abuse |
  14. delilahjones

    Former FBI director and judge, Wm. Sessions, and former Prosecutor & GA. Congressman Bob Barr say there is no credible physical evidence and Lawton diputes them, saying they would know differently if they looked at the record.
    #1- Why hasn't this record been shared with anyone to put the question to rest? Isn't the "record" public? #2 -Will this record be released after the execution?

    September 20, 2011 at 10:04 pm | Report abuse |
  15. just ice

    there was physical evidence.......bullet casings from the murder match his casings from a shooting he committed at a pool party..no 2 guns create the same mark from the firing pin.

    September 20, 2011 at 10:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Faith

      They could not conclusively prove that the bullets matched, and never recovered the weapon. The casings are not physical evidence.

      September 21, 2011 at 2:41 am | Report abuse |
    • Randall

      so what if he shot the guy at the pool party and ditched the gun in like, a dumpster and somebody else finds it and kills a cop with it?

      September 21, 2011 at 8:51 pm | Report abuse |
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