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. 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 ? How many witness's at the time of the crime pointed the finger at Red ? why didnt they want to say Red was the real killer ? between the 2 of them, somebody killed a cop, pistol whipped a homeless man, and shot someone at a party. So are you saying in south Georgia they only wanted to put this on one black man all these crimes, i mean their racist hatemongers why wouldnt they split it up amongst all of em at the party ? Employ more prison guards ? Maybe what happened is what people told them what happened, now they realize 20 years later someone is gonna die for what they said. Well whose guilt is that, not the State of Georgia's

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

      That thinking is exactly the problem with this case. The police felt the pressure to convict one of these so called young black thugs and so they decided on one of them and followed through as quickly as possible. They built their case on a lot of forced testimony because they did not value the life of the innocent ..in their mind these men were just thugs, just dogs, didn`t matter who we string up. Just as long as like the victims mother says...we can find some peace. Troy Davis claims that he was trying to help a poor homeless man who was getting threatened by a mad man. He claims that he was standing up for a guy. That is quite the opposite of a thug, whether that is true or not. As far as why red got off so lightly, the defense claims that the police chose Troy and ran with that to the extent of very real and serious threats on witnesses.

      September 21, 2011 at 10:42 am | Report abuse |
    • Dorian

      The fact that you call them "homie g thugs" instead of people shows that you are unbiased and ignorant. I bet you would hang them from a tree if you could. God will get justice on you and any other people that are judging others and scoffing at this man's impending execution. He may not be innocent but he deserves a fair trial at least. You know, Whites aren't the only ones that deserve justice in America.

      September 21, 2011 at 10:56 am | Report abuse |
    • brandon

      Georgia, Texas ssdd

      September 21, 2011 at 11:03 am | Report abuse |
  2. Laurie in Spokane

    Sounds to me as of a gross miscarriage of justice is what this is aboiut. Have a new trial!

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

      I agree. If he's guilty then the DP will be appropriate. this case stinks and they may be killing an innocent man. and i am ususally for the DP

      September 21, 2011 at 10:47 am | Report abuse |
  3. bootney

    Maybe there is no doubt in the pig-headed prosecutor that made a career on cases like these. Do we really need a media blitz to convince everyone that it is okay to kill this man? It isn't. State-sponsored killing is wrong, but regardless of your feelings on the death penalty, there are serious issues with the way this case was handled.

    September 21, 2011 at 10:37 am | Report abuse |
  4. Matthew

    So is this article supposed to make everyone feel better about sending a potentially innocent man to his death? How about interviewing the numerous people who are convinced that this case was badly managed and this man is innocent?

    September 21, 2011 at 10:39 am | Report abuse |
    • Mary

      He is not innocent. He was found guilty. Tonight he will pay.

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

      "Possibly innocent" may be a better term since we still don't know his guilt or innocence beyond a reasonable doubt, but otherwise I agree with you.

      September 21, 2011 at 11:09 am | Report abuse |
    • timeonmyhands

      Matthew, this is the article that responds to the huge media blitz by the "pro" Davis contingent. That contingent has had the vast majority of publicity and of interviews. I think the DA presented his side very well. I'm against the death penalty, but that is a different question than the guilt or innocence of this man and whether he got a fair trial or not. Some will think he did, some not. A lot will form their conclusion knowing very little of the actual facts as the DA has suggested.

      September 21, 2011 at 11:19 am | Report abuse |
  5. Caca Coo

    End capital punishment in Iran, China, Saudi Arabia and America NOW!

    September 21, 2011 at 10:41 am | Report abuse |
    • Lara

      And how sad that we are in that company!

      September 21, 2011 at 10:50 am | Report abuse |
    • John

      Youre an idiot...

      September 21, 2011 at 10:50 am | Report abuse |
  6. Courtney in Florida

    How can anybody be executed without physical evidence? I really believe our justice system is screwed up. I will pray for Troy Davis and his family.

    September 21, 2011 at 10:42 am | Report abuse |
    • melissa

      Yes Courtney... Pray for the poor MURDERER... Pray for his suffering.... After your done praying for that animal, take just a few seconds of thought for the Police Officer's family. You remember him.... The Victim...

      September 21, 2011 at 10:48 am | Report abuse |
    • Lara

      melissa, people have been praying for the victim for 20 years. And nobody's stopping. I feel horribly for those he left behind. But that doesn't mean I won't pray for Troy as well. If he did it, I pray that he repents and finds forgiveness from his god. If he didn't do it, I pray that he's spared, and that no more executions take place. And for his family, who suffers no matter what, right along with the family of the victim.

      September 21, 2011 at 10:52 am | Report abuse |
  7. D attorney

    @ Laurie in Spokane – These Attorneys that fight for these defendents are not interested in their guilt or innocence. They are against the death penalty no matter what. They will go over a court case playing monday morning quarterback and take something insignificant and blow it up! Then you have CNN which is one of the most liberal news sources in the world and write a slanted article. 1 dead cop + 9 witnisses all pointing at defendant = guilty. Lethal injection is too humane for this animal.

    September 21, 2011 at 10:45 am | Report abuse |
    • Courtney in Florida

      D attorney,

      You are totally wrong about this case and what an evil thing to say. I hope someday your words will come back to haunt you, just like the board in Georgia who is upholding this death sentence.

      September 21, 2011 at 10:53 am | Report abuse |
    • D attorney

      Yeah.... I'm Evil. Go back to your trailer Courtney. I hope we execute every murderer.

      September 21, 2011 at 11:01 am | Report abuse |
    • Chaos

      >>>These Attorneys that fight for these defendents are not interested in their guilt or innocence.<<<

      Its irrelevant even if true. The issue is whether the defendant is actually guilty or innocent, not what his attorneys interests are.

      September 21, 2011 at 11:01 am | Report abuse |
    • Mary

      Chaos – you are so naive. This is about the Death Penalty.... Not troy Davis...

      September 21, 2011 at 11:10 am | Report abuse |
    • Mike Stein

      @D Attorney

      I do agree with you that the defense attorneys play all kinds of delaying games, and quite often because they are totally opposed to the death penalty. But that does not mean that they are always wrong about the innocence of their clients.

      You say that you hope we execute every murderer. But what you don't say is how many innocent people you are willing to execute in order to guarantee that every guilty person gets executed. One for every 100 guilty? Five? Ten? Fifty? Give me a number, D Attorney – if you dare. The easier you make it to execute the guilty, the easier you make it to execute the innocent. The justice system makes mistakes. It has been absolutely proved by DNA evidence that people have been sentenced to death in this country for crimes they didn't commit. Read this story, D Attorney:

      http://movies.nytimes.com/library/politics/camp/051400wh-bush-cases.html

      and tell me there is absolutely no doubt in your mind that each and every person mentioned was guilty.

      So what would it hurt to bring the recanting witnesses into court to cross-examine them? At worst, they're found to be liars, and a judge and prosecutor lose a few hours. But if cross-examination would have shown them to be credible, an innocent man loses the rest of his life. If the attorneys deliberately sat on the witnesses to delay things, I suggest that the proper way to handle that is to sanction the attorneys, not to kill their client.

      September 21, 2011 at 11:52 am | Report abuse |
  8. Anchorite

    The prosecutor always says he's sure the man is guilty, so that means nothing. The prosecutor in the West Memphis Three case said he'd sure the men are guilty even though they were proven innocent by DNA evidence after 20 years and set free and he was so afraid they'd have a case against the state he forced them to sign waivers saying they wouldn't.

    September 21, 2011 at 10:51 am | Report abuse |
  9. J. Monroe

    You can debate the legitimacy of the death penalty all day long, and I'll listen to what you have to say, but don't for one INSTANT say that Troy Davis is innocent.

    He shot a man in the face at a party, then viciously beat and robbed a homeless man, with two accomplices, one of whom (assuming Davis did not pull the trigger) then murdered in cold blood a good Samaritan who came to the homeless man's aid.

    Part of personal responsibility is realizing that you are judged by the company you keep, and your past actions will rightly influence other people's assessment of your character. Davis would not be on trial for murder had he not been an active and willing participant of said murder. He is not innocent.

    A sociopath is someone who refuses to take responsibility for their actions and acknowledge the consequences of those actions, as a result of their inability to feel guilt or remorse. A telltale characteristic of a sociopath is the desire for others to "feel sorry" for them, to pity them. An innocent person in Troy's shoes would nevertheless feel the guilt of association for participating in events that led to the death of MacPhail. After 20 years, that introspection would result in heartfelt apologies to his family, and an acceptance that no reasonable person should be expected to believe his claims of innocence, neither of which is the case here.

    Davis is a remorseless individual who will go to his grave proclaiming the injustice of it all, never once admitting that he is the only person responsible for where he is now. He may not have pulled the trigger, but through his actions up to that point he gave the jury no reason to believe otherwise.

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

      J.Monroe,

      That is the most succinct explanation that I have heard. I agree with you totally. For all who keep proclaiming that Mr. Davis is an innocent man, don't forget, he first shot someone in the face at a party. Attempted murder maybe? This is not a quality human being but a real danger to society. He is not just some innocent guy who walk walking down the sidewalk on his way to church to do charity work for those less fortunate. Does that warrant alone warrant the death penality, no, but it is only one piece of the puzzle. As someone who has served on several juries, you need to be in court and hear all of the testimony and see the evidence for yourself.

      September 21, 2011 at 11:17 am | Report abuse |
    • Brett

      Monroe You are making up a story. Davis strongly contests with significant witness support the prior shooting claim and the beating of Larry Young.

      September 21, 2011 at 3:10 pm | Report abuse |
  10. publicus1776

    The police and prosecutorial misconduct here his overwhelming. He may be guilty, but if the only way you can get a conviction is to improperly coach and interview witnesses, then you don't have much of a case. If the case went to trial today with the same witnesses and evidence (or lack of it) he would most likely be found innocent. The prosecutor knows this. That's why he can't possibly admit he is wrong. Better to kill an innocent person that really do your job well.

    September 21, 2011 at 10:53 am | Report abuse |
  11. TBates

    Let the system work. There is a dead police officer with no other suspects. This is the kind of BS that let OJ get away with 2 murders. Error on the side of public safety. Most murder cases have no eye witnesses and little physical evidence. He got his day (23 years ) in court. It's time to let justice be served.

    September 21, 2011 at 10:55 am | Report abuse |
    • Chaos

      Troll.

      September 21, 2011 at 11:04 am | Report abuse |
    • mdubbs

      @Chaos: Typical. He's a troll because he doesn't agree with you? Laughable...

      September 21, 2011 at 11:08 am | Report abuse |
  12. Francisco

    I do not know if Troy Davis is guilt or not. However, considering But Lawton’s comment – “ 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” – shouldn’t the prosecutors ask for an opportunity to cross-examine the witnesses in court before moving ahead with the sentence, which may avoid the execution of an innocent person.

    September 21, 2011 at 10:57 am | Report abuse |
  13. Chaos

    The prosecutor is convinced? Like he was going to say otherwise? That's what all the prosecutors involved with the 135 death row cases that later resulted in exoneration due to actual innocence. I don't have a conclusion about this case, but the prosecutors comments about it now are meaningless. I'm not against the death penalty in principle but, in practicality, we are executing innocent people.

    September 21, 2011 at 10:58 am | Report abuse |
  14. mdubbs

    You know he's really guilty if Jimmy Carter is saying he's innocent...

    September 21, 2011 at 11:01 am | Report abuse |
  15. Denyit

    Please consider watching "12 Angry Men".

    September 21, 2011 at 11:04 am | Report abuse |
    • Mary

      I don't understand why? It is a fictional Hollywood movie? What does it have to do with this?

      September 21, 2011 at 11:13 am | Report abuse |
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