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. TheBossSaid

    No physical evidence and you kill someone on that?? What a wacked up justice system.

    September 21, 2011 at 11:05 am | Report abuse |
    • UNCLE TOM

      OH PPLEASE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! YOU MUST BE ANOTHER BLACKMAN ON HERE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      September 21, 2011 at 11:37 am | Report abuse |
    • alan

      Sounds like the Prosecuter is more worried about ruining his perfect record. He says there is no doubt about the mans guilt, but apparently there is a lot of doubt from the former jurers and the public. There needs to be undisputable physical evidence before sentancing someone to death. I would rather see 100 muderers go free than to have one innocent person spend time in prison, let alone sentanced to death.

      September 21, 2011 at 11:37 am | Report abuse |
  2. Justice

    We are barbarians, participating in a system that commits murder. This is not justice, it's vengeance.

    September 21, 2011 at 11:05 am | Report abuse |
    • Pepou27

      Exactly. Death penalty appeals to the lowest, vilest instinct of mankind. It is unfortunate that while most civilized countries have abolished it long ago, the US is in the company of Iran, China, Saudi Arabia ....

      September 21, 2011 at 11:30 am | Report abuse |
    • paulm5545

      I agree, to an extent. Some people call it justice, but it is indeed vengeance and vengeance provides some with a degree of satisfaction that the ultimate punishment for taking another life, is forfeiting your own. Whether capital punishment is right or wrong is a matter of perspective.

      September 21, 2011 at 11:35 am | Report abuse |
  3. Kevin

    Ok, I'm pro-death penalty and proud of it – but something just isn't right here...
    Call me a cynic but when the prosecutors spend years fighting it out in court using every legal loophole and technicality available to *prevent* the defense's evidence from even being heard in court (and it still hasn't) then it seems that this has nothing whatsoever to do with real "justice" at all... and everything to do with the prosecutors ego.

    September 21, 2011 at 11:06 am | Report abuse |
    • Thatguy371

      Yes, the prosecutors ego, and a cop was killed. They're getting their pound of flesh no matter what, aren't they?

      September 21, 2011 at 11:28 am | Report abuse |
    • Justicepeace

      When a person is guilty, deserve punishment, BUT NEVER DEATH PENALTY. Just ignorant people can be proud of that, specially when an innocent man will BE KILLED IN NAME OF JUSTICE!!!!!!!!!
      .

      September 21, 2011 at 11:43 am | Report abuse |
    • isolate

      You have it backwards. Remember that his attorneys are paid by the state, and it's in their best interests to spin a death penalty case out for as long as they can to keep up the cash flow. Death Row lawyers are the most cynical species in their profession. In almost every case they know their client is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and all their feigned indignation and appeals for public sympathy are pure theater to keep the money rolling in. The more motions they file, even the most frivolous, means the more bucks they earn.

      Think about it: Davis was convicted 20 years ago, and not a scrap of new evidence of his innocence has been presented in all that time. The "recantations" were probably bought and paid for. My brother spent 30 years as a federal cop, and my sister-in-law 33 years as a federal prosecutor, and both have nothing but contempt for defense attorneys who milk the system with endless motions and appeals.

      September 21, 2011 at 11:51 am | Report abuse |
  4. Marine

    He should be taken out and just hung from the nearest tree. Along with every other murderer. Black, white or other.

    September 21, 2011 at 11:08 am | Report abuse |
    • Kevin

      I completely agree- providing that he is actually guilty. However when prosecutors use technicalities like "they missed a checkbox on the form" or "They missed a filing deadline" (there was a hurricane) to prevent the defense from even presentng it's evidence you can't help but wonder....

      September 21, 2011 at 11:15 am | Report abuse |
    • Jeff

      Marine- I completely agree. One of the reasons our nation is failing so much is because it has become to soft. The reason so many of these crimes happen is because we let so many individuals off the hook. There is plenty of evidence against this man. If he would have commited a crime like this a hundred years ago he wouldn't have made it 3 months before he was finally turned into fertilizer.

      September 21, 2011 at 11:23 am | Report abuse |
    • Pepou27

      These types of sickening comments are one of the many reasons why death penalty is so abhorrent. It appeals to the vilest instincts of some sub-humans who rejoice in the suffering of others and regret the good old lynchings of black people in this country.

      September 21, 2011 at 11:28 am | Report abuse |
    • GBfromOhio

      Marines are taught one thing really well ... to quickly and efficiently kill (as described to me not too long ago by an active duty Marine Sergeant). I get that, and I appreciate your service to our country, but apparently your training has totally shaped your world view. Not surprising.

      September 21, 2011 at 11:31 am | Report abuse |
    • Marine

      what does hanging have to do with blacks?? MANY more whites were lynched (otherwise called justice) thoughout history. Stop commiting crimes and become a productive member of socioty and they wouldnt have these problems. Me or no one in my family had been a criminal and we have no fear of the justice system because we RESPECT the law and Police

      September 21, 2011 at 11:33 am | Report abuse |
    • paulm5545

      Kevin – that works both ways. The Defense uses the same technicalities for getting convictions over turned. Right or wrong, it sure beats the court of public opinion.

      September 21, 2011 at 11:37 am | Report abuse |
    • III

      Marine: yeah, there's no justice like angry mob justice, right? What I really like about your proposed system is how neatly dichotomous it is. That saves so much difficult thinking. You're either a "murderer" who deserves to be strung up a tree, or you're not. There's none of this "manslaughter" or "negligent homicide" junk, whereby the law recognizes that there's a difference between someone who accidentally causes a death in an equal fight that was not intended to be fatal, and a person who plans a cold-blooded killing. With you, it's "git a rope!" and you're done. Simple, clean (except for when they executed guy's bowels release), and easy.

      Jeff: like many people, you seem to have some feelings on this subject. Feelings are perfectly natural–celebrate your feelings! However, feelings are poor criteria on which to base laws. For example, no one has ever been able to show a significant correlation between the death penalty and a change in the behavior of criminals. To put it another way, the death penalty is not a deterrent. But as long as you FEEL that we could reduce crime by a more liberal use of the death penalty, then that's really all that counts. I'm sure there are plenty of politicians who'd love to indulge your feelings on this subject–makes them look "tough on crime", which is good for other people's feelings about them. No need for research, data, or dispassionate, empirical evidence when we have our feelings, right! Yeah! Git a rope!

      September 21, 2011 at 12:02 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Bill C.

    "former President Jimmy Carter"

    In this case, I think it's more relevant that he used to be the governor of Georgia.

    September 21, 2011 at 11:14 am | Report abuse |
  6. Cwonder

    Shame on America for it's hundreds and hundreds of years of racism. And we ask GOD to bless this place. Shame !

    September 21, 2011 at 11:17 am | Report abuse |
    • Pepou27

      Thank you!

      September 21, 2011 at 11:31 am | Report abuse |
  7. John Henson

    There is much more to this case than meets the media's eyes. I wonder why the media never got Lawton's explanation until now.

    September 21, 2011 at 11:18 am | Report abuse |
    • Jason

      Why?
      Because CNN is on an anti-death penalty crusade. There is only one side in their opinion and this is a weak attempt to provide the other side, the side shared by about 80% of the people in Georgia and 70% in America.
      Note a tiny article elsewhere on CNN's site about the upcoming execution of a former KKK leader who tortured James Byrd, a Black man in Texas, to death a few years back. Are the outraged about THAT execution?

      September 21, 2011 at 11:27 am | Report abuse |
    • Wolf

      As quoted in the article: ""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."

      September 21, 2011 at 11:28 am | Report abuse |
  8. Reality Check

    If you honestly take racial and religious views out of everyone's analysis he's guilty. Case shut end of story. Democracy ain't easy.

    September 21, 2011 at 11:23 am | Report abuse |
  9. isolate

    I urge anyone who believes a miscarriage of justice is taking place to read accounts of the trial and the abundance of physical evidence presented, which made a guilty verdict inescapable. Wikipedia is a good start. Its article has voluminous citations of court records which can be followed up. Davis, a born con man, has used every trick in the book to avoid execution for a crime he committed 22 years ago. Now his luck has finally run out.

    Don't be scammed by the PR campaign Davis's supporters have mustered. They represent scads of emotions and zero new evidence of his innocence. Read the evidence for yourself and make the call.

    September 21, 2011 at 11:23 am | Report abuse |
    • Thatguy371

      I have read the evidence. You're wrong.

      September 21, 2011 at 11:26 am | Report abuse |
  10. GBfromOhio

    I was hoping the prosecutor could provide some insight as to the validity of the case against Davis. Quite the opposite unfortunately.

    September 21, 2011 at 11:24 am | Report abuse |
    • paulm5545

      Perhaps the validity of the case is the fact that since the 1991, the conviction of Davis has been argued, appealed, discussed and ultimately affirmed throughout the court system.

      September 21, 2011 at 11:31 am | Report abuse |
  11. Thatguy371

    Typical prosecutor, or any in law enforcement for that matter. New facts/recanted testimonies etc. come in, they dismiss them as irrelevant. And they'll do all they can to suppress any new facts that come to light after they kill him. And even if that comes to light, irrefutable evidence, they'll dismiss it as 'smoke and mirrors'. Cutting through all the b.s., a cop was killed, and they're going to get their pound of flesh no matter what. GA joins TX in killing an innocent man in a few hours, all because they just HAVE to kill someone for the crime. Never mind it's the wrong person. GA never lets facts get in the way of making a good decision.

    September 21, 2011 at 11:25 am | Report abuse |
  12. Reality Check

    How great a story would it be if as the needle is being inserted into his arm he actually confessed to the crime? That would be one big giant slap in the face for all those opposed to the death penalty on religious or racial grounds.

    September 21, 2011 at 11:26 am | Report abuse |
    • Joseph

      Or, how about after he is put to death, the "real" evidence comes out that he is innocent????? Be real &$%-up!!

      September 21, 2011 at 11:43 am | Report abuse |
  13. brazeap

    Any bleeding hearts out there for Lawrence Russell Brewer ? Of course not, white kills black is horryfing and death is too good for him, but black kills white is ok and is just the conviction is just a result of a racist justice system. Man, that's screwed up.

    September 21, 2011 at 11:26 am | Report abuse |
  14. paulm5545

    "As for President Carter's position that Davis should get life without parole because he was unfairly convicted based on the evidence..." Wait a minute – so Carter has no problem giving Davis life without parole even though he feels Davis was unfairly convicted?! How crazy is that?

    September 21, 2011 at 11:27 am | Report abuse |
    • Reality Check

      I'm old enough to actually remember that Carter was hands down the worst president of the last 50 years. His rehabilitated image as an elder statesman of the Democratic Party makes me want to vomit. Carter was a terrible president who sank America's reputation and standing around the world.

      September 21, 2011 at 11:31 am | Report abuse |
  15. Walker

    no credible evidence. I believe there's a song about this, the state of georgia has blood on it's hands once again, backwards racist hillbillies

    September 21, 2011 at 11:29 am | Report abuse |
    • DT1979

      Judging from your comment I take it that you have taken the time to read court transcripts and meticulously critique the evidence you claim is not credible. Who am I kidding....you have read a couple slanted CNN stories and feel that you have insight into this case. Yeah ok.... Even if you had made a cognizant or contributory comment, your name calling negates anything you might have pieced together. AKA, you are a troll!

      September 21, 2011 at 12:20 pm | Report abuse |
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