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. T3chsupport

    If you disallow evidence, then you're probably hiding the truth. If they're so sure he's guilty, why won't they examine anything else? Won't it just support the same theory if it's so certain that he's guilty?

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

      i think what he is saying is that there IS no new evidence to consider, that in fact the doubts in the public mind are not based on the actual arguments of the evidence during the trial, but a concerted effort to disparage the findings that were based on adjudication of the case in court.
      this is one of the reasons i personally opposed the death penalty, the stakes are just too high. it is bad enough when innocent people are finally let out of prison after wrongful incarceration, but there is no going back after the death of the convicted...

      September 21, 2011 at 11:49 am | Report abuse |
  2. Addy

    It was said the the witness recount what they say. But that doesn't count no more cos they have said it before, if any witness should come on now and say something i knw they will use it again which is very unfair. they are taking a life that is not guilty, if this is one of you guys family, will you let him be "excuted" And all of you will go home and sleep with a peaceful heart hmmmn. The Lord God Almighty is there in heaven watching everyone.

    September 21, 2011 at 11:33 am | Report abuse |
  3. Herbatious

    So many innocent people in this country have been executed based on "no doubt" by the prosecutors. When the state murders innocent people, who gets the death penalty? Perhaps the prosecutors should be found culpable.

    September 21, 2011 at 11:34 am | Report abuse |
  4. Drip Drip

    Maybe the witnesses which have recanted should be tried for murder once he's Tango Uniform.

    September 21, 2011 at 11:35 am | Report abuse |
  5. GBfromOhio

    I think the Georgia Review Board is of the mind set "damn the evidence, nobody is going to tell us what to do, we'll show them" Read that sentence using your best Georgia accent and an understanding of the history of the deep south.

    September 21, 2011 at 11:36 am | Report abuse |
    • DT1979

      Well GBfromOhio....since a couple of the members of the Georgia Parole Board are BLA CK, when we "read" this sentence in our best accent as you ask, should we put an Afro American slant to it, or tip in a traditional southern accent. However, being from Savannah, we do have our own local drawl. But wait, there are so many northern transplants here now, several from OH that I am friends with to be exact....should we put a mid-west twang with it? Please clarify!

      September 21, 2011 at 12:08 pm | Report abuse |
  6. dutspup

    Im not for or against kiling this guy BUT to his first comment in this story it seems to me that the law is not supporting the will of the people as it is mandated. Court is nothing but hocous pocous and verbal trickery, slick legal maneuvering etc I mean look at the OJ trial and that is just one example of hundreds of the decades. A poor or average person would have been convicted but when you have tons of cash, well.

    September 21, 2011 at 11:37 am | Report abuse |
  7. Rondo

    Calling the people racist hillbillies just shows the low level of your mentality.Also, saying that most countries outlaw the death penalty to bolster your argument is wrong. Most countries outlaw abortion too. So that means you are against that?

    September 21, 2011 at 11:37 am | Report abuse |
  8. Navy Submarine Nuclear Reactor Operator Supervisor

    This execution goes against all that I have stood for.

    September 21, 2011 at 11:41 am | Report abuse |
    • Dudley4018

      ...and your previous occupation, by which you completely identify your self as a person and weigh your personal value, has what to do with this?

      September 21, 2011 at 11:44 am | Report abuse |
    • Navy Submarine Nuclear Reactor Operator Supervisor

      Integrity. Honor. Courage. Commitment. .....wherewithall..... Rather than just a person who may not have accomplished that, some think ... and it has been stated... that people who are sticking up for Mr Davis are of less than capable of thought and logic. I would propose that rather than just being a white or black or cop or such, that if by any stretch someone would read this, then, they would know that there are people who really have done something with their lives other than sit in front of televisions, who question this ruling. I don't make a profession of disagreeing with things just because its..... "hip".

      September 21, 2011 at 11:56 am | Report abuse |
    • Dudley4018

      See below. About ten or twenty posts down for my reply. I encourage yours.

      September 21, 2011 at 11:58 am | Report abuse |
  9. obsthetimes

    @Laurie in Spokane:
    Have a new trial. Have a new trial?!
    Do you know how many millions more this would cost GA tax payers?
    Purely cynical view: I am against the death penalty only because of how costly it is: This gentleman was totally out of control that night. He went out, shot someone in the face, next he pistol whipped a man for some beer, and finally shot a police officer dead!
    Wearing a big cross in court does not make someone innocent or a good person.

    September 21, 2011 at 11:42 am | Report abuse |
    • Ex White Cop

      I guess it's best we save "millions of dollars" so that we risk executing a possibly innocent man?

      September 21, 2011 at 11:47 am | Report abuse |
  10. Dudley4018

    What a shock – the prosecutor says he has no doubt on the guilt of this man. Could the journalist ask a more3 biased person, one with more to win or lose? Who wants to be know as the prosecutor who was overturned? Stupid perspective to the article. Might as well have asked the accused.

    September 21, 2011 at 11:42 am | Report abuse |
  11. Southerner

    Georgia is a twisted state of evil.

    September 21, 2011 at 11:42 am | Report abuse |
    • Dudley4018

      Bless their hearts.

      September 21, 2011 at 11:48 am | Report abuse |
    • DT1979

      I'm sure you are from a saintly utopia....I guess you finally underpinned your trailer so you feel "rooted" in this community where we should all strive to live.

      September 21, 2011 at 12:11 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Blood On My Hands

    ADIOS TROY - Hell is nice this time of year!

    September 21, 2011 at 11:45 am | Report abuse |
  13. Ex White Cop

    Even the Prosecutor has the gall to state that if 7 of the 9 witnesses had recanted during the trial days, the verdict would not have been guilty! How in the world can he not realize what he just stated? The only evidence in this case is how low the Prosecutors Office and the Georgia Parol Board's morals are. This is why people do not trust American "justice". Georgia is travelling a dangerous path....

    September 21, 2011 at 11:46 am | Report abuse |
  14. Rondo

    Nobody here was at the trial. I think that coming to any conclusion based on a newspaper article would be foolish. If you saw the hours of testimony and evidence, you may have a different conclusion. BUT YOU DIDN'T. After 20 years, it may be easy to buy some recanting. Either way, the facts were presented properly in court. Don't think that you can have some little "internet trial" and be right.

    September 21, 2011 at 11:47 am | Report abuse |
  15. DugB

    Seems that the prosecutor is trying to convince himself of the power of his own "evidence".

    Ain't a damn thing changed...

    September 21, 2011 at 11:49 am | Report abuse |
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