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. Huh?

    Have you people even read this article? The man was tried and convicted. The appeal was not overturned. This thing has been one of the most public trials in the last 20 years.

    And yet, he was still found guilty with no doubt.

    The legal system was used and not abused. Death penalty views or no, he was most definitely found guilty beyond any reasonable doubt. Period.

    Our opinions on the matter don't change that one wit. Stop buying into the public outcry, which means NOTHING in a court of law. If they honestly had any kind of argument for his innocence, this could easily have gone to the U.S. Supreme Court, which it did not? Why? It didn't come close to meriting that opportunity. Why? The evidence WAS substantial and he WAS found GUILTY.


    September 21, 2011 at 7:58 am | Report abuse |
    • Brett

      I feel people have far too much faith in the Justice system. In lawyers, in judges and in the police. Probably because people believe they live on the side of the law. The law needs to live on the side of everybody even young black men up to no good and homeless men and former convicts. In this case the police clearly coerced the witness testimony of people who had a lot to lose if the police sided against them, Darrell Collins – threat of execution, Dorothy Ferrel testified in exchange for help from Lawton . Larry Young refused medical treatment until he signed what the police wanted him to sign. The list goes on.. Courts considered only the points that they saw fit to. There has never been a second trial, there has only been hearings on this and that. And Troy is required to prove innocence in order to even get a truly fair trial with all the new information considered. There is enough evidence to prove innocence to the same degree that he has been proven guilty..witnesses saying Coles did it, Coles had a gun, he didn`t shoot at the car, he didn`t hit Larry young. This evidence also may not be enough to convict Coles, so be it. They just want a verdict but the verdict is not clearly there for either of these men. It is not enough to execute someone and after 20 years one man at least would have already served his time for murder in another country.

      September 21, 2011 at 8:42 am | Report abuse |
    • dumbamerican

      Yeah its just coincidental that he was already shooting up areas of cloverdale that night. Every black is innocent in america cause the white man is out to get em. Free da poor man, and treat him to a free meal at the mcdonalds in pooler ga.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:43 am | Report abuse |
    • pauline

      I believe Davis is guilty. I DO NOT WANT TO SEE HIM PUT TO DEATH! Please, God, move the hearts of men and women today and allow his to live out his days in prison.

      September 21, 2011 at 10:14 am | Report abuse |
    • George

      Nine out of twelve prosecution witnesses have recanted. There is sufficient doubt to revisit this case. He can always be executed at a later date but he can never be un-executed. This is a life we are dealing with. Be certain before taking it.

      September 21, 2011 at 10:29 am | Report abuse |
    • Mary

      Lethal injection is too good for this murderer.

      September 21, 2011 at 10:56 am | Report abuse |
  2. Roman

    This I proclaim, if innocense is found in Mr. Davis then let the ground shake in Georgia. If Davis is guilty the ground will stay silent then the Truth is revealed.

    September 21, 2011 at 8:01 am | Report abuse |
    • Mike Hunt's brother

      The ground would not shake either way, unless there was an earthquake of course.

      September 21, 2011 at 8:12 am | Report abuse |
    • Carl Sounds like you havent done your homework. The court throughout recanted witness testimony, dna evid., and eyewitnesses who saw the actual killer. Im convinced those of you who would send an innocent man to his death should face criminal charges amd lethal injection. Perhaps we will have legiislation like this in the near future for those who are so hasty to murder without the facts. Think about it...or van you.

      September 21, 2011 at 8:19 am | Report abuse |
    • pauline

      A little grandiose of you, Roman.

      September 21, 2011 at 10:15 am | Report abuse |
    • George

      This is the 21st century, not the 2nd.

      September 21, 2011 at 10:26 am | Report abuse |
    • Think B4 U Post

      Sheesh. Stop trying to invoke the heavens into your kooky, warped "ordeal" thinking. This is not the dark ages.

      September 21, 2011 at 10:36 am | Report abuse |
  3. Brett

    @Richard. Two men can be considered for the crime. Troy Davis and Red Coles. Both Troy and Coles do not dispute that they were there that night. Neither of them have alibis. Red Coles alibi for the first shooting is shaky from what I can tell. Another witness also places Coles at that party. Please tell me more about the so called physical evidence. The some physical evidence you talk about seems to be only one piece of so called physical evidence which has been discredited. The so called physical evidence is the very opposite of substantial. The witnesses who have not recanted are Red Coles, who is the next most likely candidate for suspect. The other witness originally stated to police that he would not be able to recognize the killer but later during the trial was suddenly able to identify the killer as Troy Davis which leads me to believe that the police had again overstepped their role and put words in the mouth of the man. Another witness to an important piece of the puzzle related to the T. Shirt is in fact Red Coles sister. When is her cross examination coming I want to know. A lot more could have been discovered in trial about the truth if the police hadn`t relied on false testimony in order to shove through their preferred verdict as soon as possible

    Besides the cartridge there was a police claim of bloody shorts which the family still hold up on their site as real evidence. It simply isn`t real evidence... the defense say it appears doubtful there was actual blood on the shorts, and that the shorts actually belonged to Troy's mother further the claim that the blood that was present was so small as to be useless and all used up in DNA testing just goes to show that it is not really physical evidence at all if it that small. I might have blood that small on my shorts right now. As I understand it Davis should not have been convicted in the first case of shooting Michael Cooper. The testimony against him in that case has also been recanted as I understand it, or would be if Darrell Collins were to be asked the appropriate questions and the right time. Collins and others disown their testimony on the Michael Cooper incident as coerced by police. The Michal Cooper case falls and so does the connection of evidence about it being the same gun. Another man in the car at the time of the Cooper shooting said that he heard far more than a single gun being fired at him and that their were automatic weapons included in that. Furthermore it has been stated that the link between the two cartridges is false and has been discredited by department which did the analysis. This information I feel hasn`t had it`s day in court so the prosecution are free to stand by their claim that there is a link. Spencer says elsewhere that the confusion over the cartridge has been cleared up. I don`t believe this is so.

    September 21, 2011 at 8:21 am | Report abuse |
    • dumbamerican

      Then we must execute them both.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:45 am | Report abuse |
    • Think B4 U Post

      Brett, I admire your efforts to explain this information in such a logical, patient presentation, and I'm very sorry to have to tell you this. You are wasting your time, fingertips and gray matter on these blood-thirsty misologists. Great work, though.

      September 21, 2011 at 10:47 am | Report abuse |
  4. Patti

    Would anyone expect the prosecutor to say anything else ? Innocent men have been executed in the past so why not re-examine and then proceed if guilty verdict still sound.

    September 21, 2011 at 8:24 am | Report abuse |
    • tony

      The evidence has been poured over for the last 20 years. Now, the bell tolls for Troy Davis

      September 21, 2011 at 10:30 am | Report abuse |
    • Mary

      Would you expect a man on death row to say anything else? Would you expect a defense attorney to do anything but lie? You are so naive....

      September 21, 2011 at 10:59 am | Report abuse |
  5. Sammy

    Saudi Arabia, Iran, and North Korea must be so pleased to see their fellow barbarians killing more of their citizens

    September 21, 2011 at 8:32 am | Report abuse |
    • Brett

      Absolutely Obama needs to do something if he isn`t simply showing confidence in the supreme court a little longer to step in. I wish he would review the evidence after all he is a lawyer.

      September 21, 2011 at 8:46 am | Report abuse |
  6. Rain Murphy


    September 21, 2011 at 8:42 am | Report abuse |
  7. Mac

    the public looks at cases such as Casey Anthony who got off for murder with a bozo lawyer, then why shouldn't this guy. Let's weigh the death of an innocent child and weigh the death of a police officer doing his duty. Too me they both weigh the same. The guy did the crime, he must face the punishment no matter what the price is.

    September 21, 2011 at 8:50 am | Report abuse |
  8. roksnbeast

    It never matters what the prosecutor thinks. To express doubt would be to admit error, and prosecutors never admit error.

    September 21, 2011 at 9:09 am | Report abuse |
  9. lynseypug

    I hope there is karmic justice for this murder. Say a nice little cardiac arrest for this arrogant prosecutor.

    September 21, 2011 at 9:26 am | Report abuse |
    • George

      Do you understand how karma works? Evedently not or you would not have posted those words.

      September 21, 2011 at 10:32 am | Report abuse |
    • George


      September 21, 2011 at 10:33 am | Report abuse |
  10. SkekLach

    I love how we have 2 articles about people getting the death penalty on CNN right now. One about the black man who attacked 3 people and the hordes of people defending him, saying that he could be innocent and that his is obviously injustice born partially out of racial discrimination. Then there's the one about that white guy who killed a black man finally getting what he deserves.

    I'm not defending the white guy, don't get me wrong. I think he's guilty and deserves to die too. It's just funny how both of these men killed a person of the opposite race but claim it wasn't them and were found guilty and sentenced to death. Yet we have this protesting and defending of Troy Davis because he's a black man in the south, so it must simply be these white racists treating him unfairly.

    Despite what the liberals seem to believe, there's no conspiracy amongst white people to hold down minorities and a murderer is a murderer no matter what color he is, just like a terrible president is a terrible president no matter what color they are.

    September 21, 2011 at 9:38 am | Report abuse |
    • smartamerican

      The most truthful and profound argument ever presented on this forum. Cheers to you and your wisdom.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:50 am | Report abuse |
    • sir si

      hear hear!!!

      September 21, 2011 at 10:18 am | Report abuse |
    • Well, well..

      SkekLach, please, get the facts before you start spouting off about nonsense. After reviewing the article, and many others that have come about in the past few days, I did not gather the issue was about race. The ballistic evidence is apparently lacking, and eyewitnesses are
      recanting their stories. Also, did you know that 7 of the 12 jurors that convicted this man were black?? It is your right to believe that "liberals" think there is a conspiracy amongst whites, but please don't apply your flawed logic, and obvious disdain for Obama to this story. Save it for the birds.

      September 21, 2011 at 10:25 am | Report abuse |
    • poo-particals

      Nicely put! I think you should start writing articles for CNN

      September 21, 2011 at 10:30 am | Report abuse |
    • SkekLach

      Well, Well.. You apparently haven't read half the comments on these articles where people are claiming that race is a factor. You also apparently did not read the places where they're tagging along the statistics in regards to the death penalty and race..
      As I said, I believe that the man is guilty and I don't think the color of his skin changes or affirms that. I don't think the race of the jurors does either. That evidence that you talk about not being good enough though was enough to convince those jurors that this man was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
      As I said though, the only thing that separates this from the story of the white man in Texas who drug a black man behind his truck is a reversal of the colors and it's not hard to see the difference they've been given in response.
      I mention the liberal president and the liberal-minded people because this sentiment that blacks are always being victimized is a liberal sentiment.
      As far as my logic goes, I find nothing flawed or irrational behind thinking that this man being found guilty was just and is not impacted by his race or in thinking that the people screaming that this was because of his race think that it is.

      September 21, 2011 at 11:36 am | Report abuse |
  11. Think Sane

    Not one person, not a single supporter of Davis, has ever alledged that he did NOT committ the first shooting that night. Both sides, in full, agree with his conviction in the first shooting. The physical evidence has proved that the shell casings from both shootings match and came from the same gun. That's pretty conclusive. And is it really all that amazing that after 20 years some witnesses have changed their recollection some? Can anyone honestly say that their memory of events from 20 years ago is as crystal clear today as it was back then when the events were fresh? And why haven't any of these changed stories been tested in court with cross examination? They've had the opportunity. IMO – the evidence is still conclusive for a conviction. None of the media posturing has changed that. I just don't know if it's as airtight as I'd want it to be in order to take someone's life.

    September 21, 2011 at 9:51 am | Report abuse |
    • Brett

      In all my searching I have found very little information saying that the defense and supporters do not challenge the first claim. In fact there are testimonies recanting that first shooting. Darrell Collins recanted his statement saying Troy had shot at the car, he said police had coerced him into saying these things by threatening him with the death penalty. Benjamin Gordon and Michael Cooper denied seeing the person shooting at their car. Benjamin Gordon later said he saw Coles , a relative, shoot the officer. Police put him directly across the road from the incident. Cooper had claimed that he saw Davis arguing with a friend but later he admitted that he was drunk and couldn`t really say that for sure and only that Davis was in the vicinity of the argument The information is there I just think that the defense is focusing now on what they think they have the best chance with and that is the affidavits about the murder which point to a case based on false testimony. Troy Davis pleaded not guilty to all the charges as I understand it which for me is equal to the defense challenging those claims. We see in the trial that some Gordon, Cooper on cross examination deny the details which incriminate Davis. So I think that Spencer Lawton is imagining all that clear proof, The problem is that the Judge and Jury in this case took more more notice of the police reports that they had coerced from Cooper and Gordon and Collins than they did the testimony from those same men denying that they could identify Davis in the shooting.

      September 21, 2011 at 12:09 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Dribble

    Spike both of the rabid monsters and get it over with, alread! Yeesh!

    September 21, 2011 at 9:52 am | Report abuse |
  13. kcbeard

    So every time we have some one murdered and 2 black homie g thugs are pointing the finger at each other, are we suppose to not be punishing either of them ? H

    September 21, 2011 at 10:21 am | Report abuse |
    • Brett

      No. Unless you can prove guilt they should go free. Unless maybe you can prove that they are indeed a group of thugs, friends in fact and engaged in an act which could likely lead to a persons death. Then I think you could at least slap some if not all with a manslaughter charge or some kind of lesser murder charge. However there as been little proven about the link between Davis and Cole, just two black who were playing pool in the same pool hall. We don`t know if they even knew each other before, if they were neighbors. The connection wasn`t established in court because the police had already one the case with false testimony and coerced confessions. The police prevented us from getting to the truth when they did that whether or not Davis was the killer in the end. WE always just want to kill someone, lock them away for life, We need to find someone for that peace of mind. Brownies points for officers, brownies points for mayors, brownies points for prosecutors and defense. If we were truly revolutionary we could find a way to commit people caught up like this to some kind of rehab so that if couldn`t that they deserved punishment we could prevent murderers from walking free without a period of time away from regular society to grow and change. And you never know, while they are on their program we may be able to discover who really did commit those crimes. But no we can`t just go iny miny miny mo lets execute this joe.

      September 21, 2011 at 11:06 am | Report abuse |
  14. Joke.

    Racism at its finest. This is absolutely devastating.

    I lost complete faith in the justice system after the Casey Anthony trial so I'm not shocked.

    September 21, 2011 at 10:22 am | Report abuse |
  15. Judy75201

    Defense shenanigans of creating doubt have gotten out of hand. Lawyers on all sides treat trials like some chess game, but defense is on the smelly side in this one.

    September 21, 2011 at 10:24 am | Report abuse |
    • Brett

      Really. How is that? It appears to me that the defense has been tremendously under resourced in trying to counter the state. It`s David vs Goliath and you are complaining because David is trying to use a sling shot instead of a sword. This outpouring of support hasn`t always been there. The recantations are very real, we can watch many of these people recanting their testimony on camera, on the news and others pointing the blame elsewhere. The defense want that information heard. They believe it also. It`s not anti death penalty conspiracy, these people believe that Troy Davis has not received a fair trial Just as much if not more that the prosecution believes that they are right. It is a complicated case, people concious thought is less at play than their subconcious prejudices and beliefs.

      September 21, 2011 at 10:52 am | Report abuse |
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