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. Realtalker1

    Every prosecutor that gets it wrong typically says the same thing.

    September 21, 2011 at 11:51 am | Report abuse |
    • nimitta

      Yes. And sometimes prosecutors who've gotten it right say something like this as well. Your point?

      More to the point, you probably don't know anything at all about this case. A good place to start is, where you can find links to the trial record and appellate decisions. You'll see why the so-called 'recantations' weren't credible, why the physical evidence was compelling, and why Davis' jury convicted him in two hours. He was obviously guilty of both shootings.

      I oppose the death penalty and hope Troy Davis is spared. Let's not turn him into an international symbol of racism or injustice, though. People like Spencer Lawton and William Moore deserve our praise far more.

      September 21, 2011 at 12:21 pm | Report abuse |
  2. humanrights

    Guilty of Being Black.

    September 21, 2011 at 11:52 am | Report abuse |
    • B+

      Black racism is the real problem. Until the black community takes ownership for their problems instead of blaming the white man, this nation is not going to move forward with race relations. What worries me is that they also don't think the white man is ever going to stand up for himself and stop tolerating this bs. I get this feeling that they think they can keep pushing our government towards an equal income society, keep screaming about racism every time you turn around, keep rioting, keep attacking whites at disproportionate rates and whites will keep taking it. They seem to be totally unaware of that whites have been tolerating this bs because they kept hoping that eventually they would start fitting in over time like every other cultural group in our nations history. Unfortunately this hasn't happened and whites are growing tired of it. Mark my prediction, whether or not its riots tonight because of Troy or riots because whites wake up and stop voting for an incompetent president because he is black, or some other reason, but the riots aren't going to go esclate and not go like the rioters had hoped. Then, this nation will figure out how bad things have gotten and will start working towards a solution that both whites and blacks can live with. Too bad things will have to come to a head first.

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

      B+ you couldn't be more right. I never see the people calling out the thugs and murderers for what they are. Quit the coddling. You know as well as I do that if he was white, there would never be this much attention given to this. Ask yourself why you would pay any less attention if he was white.

      September 21, 2011 at 12:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Skegeeace

      Only a racist would turn the case of an innocent black man about to be executed into a "Black need to be more responsible" sermon. Grow up! A man's life is at stake. If you were black, it could YOU- heck, it could be you whether you were black or not! I hate knowing there's people like you living on Earth. YOU are more a part of the problem with your awful stereotypes and generalizations. I'll bet you don't even know any black people outside of what you see on TV. Just disgusting.

      September 21, 2011 at 12:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Skegeeace

      For you information, blacks have only rioted when whites were violent FIRST- the 1933 riots (because whites were lynching and burning), the LA Riots (because white cops beat the black off Rodney King), etc. etc. I sincerely DOUBT that there would be riots in this case, but if there were, it's probably because we INSIST on killing an black man wthout good enough proof- MORE WHITE VIOLENCE. Oh, and, don't forget- when Oscar Grant was shot in the back while facedown on the ground by an officer, there were PROTESTS, but no riots. Go read a book. Better yet, kill yourself- the world is so much better off.

      September 21, 2011 at 12:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • GailS

      @ B+ .... Ownership of problems? Shall we start with the US government that created the black ghettos? Or what about the US justice system that disproportionately arrests black people for cocaine offenses? And we can't forget about the right-wing conservatives who misuse crime statistics to try and justify racist profiling. Dare I suggest that some have cunningly shifted the responsibility of ownership of the many problems faced by black people and your posting is just another attempt to do the same.

      September 21, 2011 at 12:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Vumba

      B+ Nicely put. Let me just add two things to what you are saying: What your saying is so true but what about the white liberals? In many ways they are a bigger issue when it comes to racism than the racist blacks themselves. Liberalism has hurt this country in so many ways, the Kerrys, the Obamas, the Kennedys, Clinton, Carter, Frank, Dodds, with their grandiose ideals have cost us bilions (now trillions?). The liberal experiments of forced busing, quotas, affirmative action, Fannie & Freddie, all examples of disastrous liberal ideals that have hurt our country. My second comment is this, it's unfortunate when talking about blacks a person categorizes ALL blacks, it's not right or fair. That is why I always say 'racist blacks', I want to make the distinction between ghetto rats and hard working black people, which there are many. I have nothing but the utmost respect for my colleagues. I actually feel sorry for them because they are between the proverbial 'rock and a hard place'. The ghetto rat, is nothing but a ghetto rat, but they have gall to admonish a successful black person because he's 'trying to be white'. It's probably one of the worst statements ever used. Yet, the liberal won't come out and say anything about that because of their hypocritical stance on issues. B+, keep up the good fight, good always win in the end.

      September 21, 2011 at 12:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • tellyou1nce

      it's such a shame that this upstanding citizen was pulled out of his 9 – 5 job and accused of being a low-life. He was such a productive asset to society. shammmmmmeee...... buh-bye!

      September 21, 2011 at 12:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • Skegeeace

      So unemployed people are worthy of death? Oh, hi there, Hitler!

      September 21, 2011 at 12:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • humanrights

      I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say that you are not a minority of any kind. Therefore you have no idea what its like.
      try living ONE day has a hard working minority in a white controlled world. Until then keep your speculations about hardships to yourself.

      i'm Italian yet my skin is dark, darker than my brother and sister (who both have white skin). And though im not black, the "If you're not white you're trash' mentality still stands across more states that whites would ever admit too. Im not someone that would look for hand outs or for easy rides for anything either. i work hard for everything i own. ever been beatin with bats because you are a minority? i have. i could go on and on about some of the things that have happened to me ie. shot at on the way to work, stabbed with an icepick while having racial slurs yelled at me, having cases were i've pressed charges thrown out because white money is more powerful than minority rights, be denied a promotion that im over qualified for and be passed up by someone fresh out of school, but work experience, be accused of a theft crime at work that happened while i was on vacation... just a few examples of what its like(even though im registered as a white male) and im only 25 so its still out there.

      There is a whole different world out there that minorities have to live in, the real world. Some of the hardships are self inflicted due to laziness or whatever, but a larger portion of us are real victims, and live the life of a victim everyday. You're welcome to come join our world and see what real world really is.

      I've grown to hate the color of my skin, not because of minorities but because i know if i had white skin regardless of where i come from i would be treated like a God in comparison to how we are treated/looked upon now.

      There is a song by Depech Mode; Walking in my shoes. You should listen to it.

      September 21, 2011 at 12:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • humanrights

      my last post was @ B+ btw

      September 21, 2011 at 12:44 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Dudley4018

    USAF Electronic Countermeasures and Electronic Counter-Counter Measures 7-level Technical Supervisor, Garage Door Salesman and Lawn Grass Regulating Device Operator says that, "As a Fescue Tech., I see lots of injustice in the world, obviously, and this legal argument over the preponderance of evidence and the Prosecutorial Presentation thereof is specious but clean and clear, fecal but undigested, and foul but sweet-smelling."

    September 21, 2011 at 11:53 am | Report abuse |
    • Dudley4018

      "...and it is against all that I have stood for..."

      Oh, and since I'm a vet, you cannot question me. It's a race card kind of thing."

      September 21, 2011 at 11:55 am | Report abuse |
    • United States Marine Corps Snake Eater

      You're both nerds.

      September 21, 2011 at 12:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dudley4018

      So what's nerdy about selling garage doors and mowing grass? And I don't have to eat reptiles.

      September 21, 2011 at 3:36 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Vumba

    Where I live, this year's violent crime count, meaning cops vs bad guys caught in the act, have already claimed 7 black males. After every shooting the black community immediately claims the police officer did not have to shoot the bad guy in the act of committing a crime. Don't mind that the bad guy shot at the police after being told to stop. Of course each case has that 'mystery' thing surrounding it, why did the police shoot, why did the police chase them, why did the police...Never once does the black community come out and say "if so and so would not have put himself in that position the police would not have to shoot them". It's always the blame game, heaven forbid we play the accountability game. And they wonder why...

    September 21, 2011 at 12:00 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Walker

    That's the night that the lights went out in Georgia, that's the night that they killed an innocent man.......

    September 21, 2011 at 12:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • randy

      Innocent right you never heard of this guy until eight days before hes going to be put to death I say juice him and be done with it if it was a white guy you would ot see all of this hubub

      September 21, 2011 at 12:07 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Stewie

    This gentleman seems to be a thoughtful and unbiased individual...good to see coming the south. That said, good people make mistakes...not something the death penalty allows. I support banning the death penalty if they bring back the chain gang...let convicts work to improve society (build roads, clean highways, etc.) since they worked to damage it when they were free.

    September 21, 2011 at 12:04 pm | Report abuse |
  7. randy

    I have to agree with b+ which hit it right on the nail

    September 21, 2011 at 12:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dudley4018

      You mean hit the nail on the head?

      September 21, 2011 at 3:37 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Dan Phillips

    One good reason to be against clemency, is Jimmy Carter is for it!!

    September 21, 2011 at 12:06 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Stephen

    Any of you privy to the facts of this case in their entirety? If not, I'm not quite sure how you can formulate an opinion about whether the review-board has made an error in judgment by not granting reprieve. You do recognize that at the appellate level it is the burden of the defendant to present evidence of any error made at trial. It is also their burden to provide evidence suggesting that a defendant is innocent.

    The defense has however called into question the validity of witness statements provided in trial. The only problem is that the judge in trial evidently acknowledged that this testimony probably shouldn't be given much weight, and the jury was still able to reach a unanimous verdict. That tells me that there must have been other evidence to implicate this guy.

    A review board cannot just arbitrarily halt an execution. They need something to substantiate a reprieve, and from what I've seen so far they haven't been provided much. Just because witness testimony is controverted doesn't necessarily mean that a verdict was reach in error.

    September 21, 2011 at 12:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Stephen

      Reached* in error...

      September 21, 2011 at 12:08 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Rondo

    Don't forget, there were 7 blacks on the jury that convicted him. It wasn't a white lynching. It seems as though some are trying to incorrectly paint that picture.

    September 21, 2011 at 12:11 pm | Report abuse |
  11. nimitta

    I oppose the death penalty, but can't shake the impression that few seem to know anything about this case. Davis was found guilty for a good reason – there was no doubt at all that he committed both crimes. Almost everything I've read recently about this case is just spin from Davis advocates. F'example, this is not a case of racial injustice. There was strong physical evidence tying Davis to both crimes. Most of the so-called 'recantations' were transparently false or failed to refute original, damning testimony. Evaluate the facts of the case for yourself – you can start by checking out to read the trial record and appellate decisions. Spare Troy Davis, but please don't make him an icon of racism or injustice!

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

    Where is the gun, how can a court in the U.S. accept the conclusion of a ballistic expert when there is no positive identification. No positive identification of the weapon!!!!! This is equivalent to a U.S. court accepting a death certificate of a person who was never even examined by a forensic anthropologists at a morgue. The evidence collected from the crime scene was not handled correctly (all put together in the same bag). Evidence is 'contaminated' if the evidence is false or misleading in any respect.

    U.S courts allows contaminated evidence?

    September 21, 2011 at 12:15 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Glenn

    It seems using the word 'won' speaks ill of the justice system. Why should anyone consider it a 'win' like a game of amusement or a game of sport? This is about finding the truth not whether someone can out smart an opponent and win.

    September 21, 2011 at 12:15 pm | Report abuse |
  14. caitlin brinner

    I'm gonna have a nice dinner once hes dead. The world will be a better place. The naacp intimidated witnesses, but none recanted in court or under path to save him...

    September 21, 2011 at 12:16 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Theresa

    Of course the prosecutor has no doubts; wouldn't want to tarnish his record. So typical. Whatever helps the guy sleep at night I guess.

    September 21, 2011 at 12:17 pm | Report abuse |
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