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. duklips

    I don't know if the guy is guilty, and neither does anybody who isn't intimately familiar with the evdence. While prosecutors tend to see everyone is guilty, at least of something, I tend to side with this prosecutor. Politics and racism has nothing to do with this. I also won't criticize Davis's lawyers, since they are bound to zealously represent their client, in any ethical way they can. Trial by public opinion would have lead to the execution of the British soldiers tried for the Boston Massacre. John Adams was able to have them acquitted – in a court of law.

    September 21, 2011 at 12:18 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Rondo

    And after it's over, some fools (under the pretense of protest) will get a new flat screen TV.

    September 21, 2011 at 12:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Larry

      Where can I sign up for the flat screen and are there any other perks for going along with public opinion?

      September 21, 2011 at 1:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • D

      yes but be sure not too loot Korean stores they shoot back, they will burn down there own stores then want the feds to rebuild it for them, this guy is so guilty it's pathetic,

      September 21, 2011 at 1:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • askmehow

      The fools under the pretense of justice, what will they receive?
      U.S. COURT ALLOW CONTAMINATED EVIDENCE BEFORE JUDGE AND JURY.

      September 21, 2011 at 1:55 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Jomm

    If you do not think he is guilty, how can you side with the this prosecutor? That does not make any sense. There is too much doubt to kill this guy. Keep him in jail but exection is wrong.

    September 21, 2011 at 12:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • HDF

      I agree. I dont know if he's guilty or not but there is entirely too much doubt to kill this man. keep him in jail but dont take his life

      September 21, 2011 at 12:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • JD

      Huh? If there's enough evidence to cast doubt then why should he be incarcerated at all? Makes no sense. Keep him in jail for life because he's "sort of" guilty?

      September 21, 2011 at 12:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • D

      doubt, is the guy he shot in the face recanting, is the guy who drove him from the party now recanting? The shell casings prove the same gun fired the bullets, you do not always get a match on the bullets themselves. Is the guy he pistol whipped at the store recanting, hell can you remember what you did 20 years ago better now? So they should all be tried for perjury? Facts seem to not matter to many people here only that he is black, that is racism in it's self.

      September 21, 2011 at 1:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • tks123

      If you think there is not enough evidence to say he should be executed, then how can there be enough for him to be kept in jail for life? Seems to me this argument is, I do not know if he is not guilty, because I am not familiar with all the evidence, but he is probably guilty, but I do not like the death penalty. My conscience bothers me at the thought of putting someone to death.
      Look, Georgia has the death penality, he was found guilty of the crime accused by a jury of his peers, he has had appeals denied and clemency denied. I have no idea of the evidence, or lack there of, so I am not going to comment on whether he should die or not.
      In the end, I only hope that those involved were right, tremendous burden on those having to decide to execute. No one is a winner in this situation.

      September 21, 2011 at 1:31 pm | Report abuse |
  4. lee

    Ok people, the case may have holes in it. Both sides have some questionable issues on the way the trial was heard. But he was convicted by his peers, no one else. And it was up-held serveral times over the years, if his innocences was there it would have come up before now. Thank God that this country doesn't do absolute justice and kill him with no trial because he was suspected of murder. He was given a trial and was convicted, karma be damned here. He was guity, tonite he will face the sentence. So sent there by his peers.

    September 21, 2011 at 12:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lee Harvey Oswald

      Well said. His conviction and sentence has been upheld NUMEROUS times by every group of judges that has seen it. Enough. Time to carry out the sentence in accordance with the law. If you don't like the law then stop people from committing crimes and the law will cease to exist or at least be irrelevant.

      September 21, 2011 at 12:31 pm | Report abuse |
  5. askmehow

    UNITED STATES COURT ALLOW CONTAMINATED EVIDENCE BEFORE JUDGE AND JURY.

    Where is the gun, how can a court of law 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.

    September 21, 2011 at 12:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Caveman

      Wow, you really don't have a clue and are brainwashed beyond all recognition. You have no idea what the cops are doing out there these days. They are causing crimes just to make rank and many of them are corrupt as the criminals. What planet are you on? .. What about the last couple guys that were just exhonerated because of new DNA evidence? .. Was the judges, the prosecutor, and the cops all given retroactive sentences for convicting an innocent man? NO.. makes you sick to your stomach to know the "system" is putting innocent people in jail.

      September 21, 2011 at 12:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • SkekLach

      The evidence wasn't "contaminated". Shell casings from both scenes were put into one bag, which doesn't matter because they are being examined against one another only. Are you arguing that the shell casings from one scene took on the properties of the other because they were in close contact?

      Also, there isn't always a gun to show. That's the way the world works. Maybe in the tv shows you get your information from like Bones and CSI they always find the weapon, but it doesn't work that way in the real world. If it did, criminals would just destroy the weapon after each murder and we'd never be able to catch any of them.

      September 21, 2011 at 12:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Brian Hartman

      How do shell case markings suddenly (magically) match because you put the cases in the same bag?

      September 21, 2011 at 12:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jon

      So? Are you saying that if there is no weapon, there is no murder? By that rational, all a criminal would have to do is dispose of the weapon and walk. What about the trial by jury that he was given? What about the dead cop? The evidence was sufficient to link this man to the murder of a police officer. So now the law will be upheld. Simply because you find the fact that someone will die for their crime offensive to you sensibilities does not mean that punishment ought not be rendered. Think about the family of the deceased officer before you start trying to defend the indefensible.

      September 21, 2011 at 1:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • askmehow

      Did You not learn from the Casey Anthony case? Today, just like 20 years ago, contaminated evidence is not admissible in a U. S.court of law.

      September 21, 2011 at 2:26 pm | Report abuse |
  6. ric

    Okay, why does he wait until the last minute to request access to a polygraph? Shouldn't he have requested one years earlier during his appeals process, or during his trial. While not admissable in court, it could have helped his case if he had done this earlier.

    September 21, 2011 at 12:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • haloguy628

      He's a slow learner, so it took him this long to learn how to beat the polygraph.

      September 21, 2011 at 1:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • yeltzin

      Even though he would fail the test it would buy him a few more hours above ground, but then too he probably thinks he might get lucky and beat the test. Ha – smart guy... the sort what would shoot two men in the face and in front of witnesses.

      September 21, 2011 at 1:20 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Albro

    LETS NOT MAKE BELIEVE THAT WE DONT KNOW THE WHOLE BASIS FOR THIS "OUTRAGE": HE'S BLACK, AND THAT'S SUPPOSED TO BE ENOUGH REASON TO FORGIVE ANY CRIME. It's worked for Mumia all these years, and they want the same for this COP KILLER!

    September 21, 2011 at 12:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lee Harvey Oswald

      Yeah, if Mumia were in Georgia or Texas...or really any other state besides PA he would have been executed a long time ago.

      September 21, 2011 at 12:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Judge Dred

      Blacks are BORN guilty.

      September 21, 2011 at 1:08 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Jason

    Opinions and fact are two different things. Having the opinion that the death penalty is wrong is totally valid. Having that opinion influence the perception of facts is, as the prosecutor rightly said, undisciplined thinking. I disagree with the death penalty– therefore, I don't think this guy should be executed. However, until the law is changed... He is being punished according to the law. The man has had his days in court, appellate court and even the supreme court. Without being intimately familiar with the actual case, how can there be so many opinions that the facts established by the case are in error, unless someone's opinion about the morality of the death penalty is an influencing factor? I think the prosecutor's statement is a good one. This isn't a happy day for anyone. But it's certainly not some kind of miscarriage of justice. And the opinion that the death penalty is amoral really has very little to do with whether a particular application is "correct" or not.

    September 21, 2011 at 12:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • GG

      Well put Jason.

      September 21, 2011 at 12:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • thegreenline

      Jason, too many people have been exonerated from crimes that put them on death row. Notice I said exonerated nd not let out because of a technicality. I don't know if this guy is guilty or not (don't know all the facts). What I do know is lots of people have been released from death row due to DNA evidence, AFTER their case has been through all the appeals in court, appellate court and even the supreme court, guess what those courts all got it wrong. Justice in this country has never been about right or wrong or even guilt or innocence, it's all about the system. Most states don't allow or care about any evidence found a year or less after the trial. The government should not be in the business of executing anyone unless they know for sure they are guilty. Being found guilty by a jury of your so called peers based on eye witness testimony is not good enough.

      September 21, 2011 at 1:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lee Harvey Oswald

      Incorrect. Until a new system is put into place being convicted by a jury of your peers based on eye witness testimony is entirely good enough and happens everyday all across the country.

      September 21, 2011 at 1:16 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Jennifer M

    I think if there's any doubt whatsoever, the guy shouldn't be executed. And it appears there's a great deal of doubt here. SEVEN people have recanted their testimony, or contradicted themselves??? And another guy has come forward and said he SAW another person shoot the police officer.

    I'm amazed this Georgia prosecutor has the audacity to question the word of William S. Sessions (former FBI director and FEDERAL district judge), and Bob Barr, a former FEDERAL prosecutor - who have said there is no credible physical evidence in the case.

    Even if the guy is guilty - when there's this much doubt, the state should not have the power to execute anyone.

    September 21, 2011 at 12:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lee Harvey Oswald

      Who has the doubt? Apparently 12 jurors and every appellate court in the country do not. I agree there is the APPEARANCE of doubt but no one who has any intimate knowledge of the case and is in a position to render an expert opinion on the merits of the basis of innocence has any shred of doubt. His due process has been satisfied. It is time to carry out the sentence.

      September 21, 2011 at 12:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • DT1979

      JenniferM, why are you amazed that this DA "has the audacity to question Sessions or Barr?" Did Sessions or Barr have anything to do with this trail? NO. Have Sessions or Barr meticulously scrutinized the court transcripts or evidence? NO. Did Sessions or Barr participate in this trial for the past 20 years? NO You know who did have a stake in the case? Federal District Court Judge Moore, who said that despite the recantations or "new evidence" Davis' guilt was upheld. Upset with the DA? Why not the Supreme Court of the US? The Supremes denied Davis' appeal of the Federal Court decision. They essentially washed their hands of it. I'm amazed at the audacity of Sessions and Barr. They are supposed to be professionals in the justice arena but essentially throw out an opinion on a case that they have no accordance or stake in. You have the right to be amazed at someones audacity, but it is clearly misdirected in your post.

      September 21, 2011 at 12:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Drake

      Why elevate (with all caps, LOL) federal authorities over state ones? They don't automatically have more credibility just because they're feds.

      The feds could have their own political agendas, or be trying to curry favor.

      September 21, 2011 at 1:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • yeltzin

      ? You sound like the type of person who could be pressured to take the witness stand look the jurors in the eye and lie just to condemn an innocent man. You seem to understand this absurdity so it must be within you, but wouldn't it be nice if any one of those recanting witrnesses volunteered for polygraph tests just to convince the public which they are trying to convince with lies.

      September 21, 2011 at 1:25 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Eloe

    This prosecutor does not make sense. He admits that if the eye witnesses would have given a different testimony at the time of the trial, there would not have been a conviction, yet he thinks the recanting of their testimony does not make a difference. – Also how did Davis get a fair trial and outcome by a jury, as the prosecutor says, if jurors today say, they would have not convicted, had they known all the evidence. -And lastly he speaks of 2 different Davis cases, one legal, the other public relations, claiming that the State won the case repeatedly over the last 2 decades. But there was only one trial, and the appeals have been denied because of the 1996 Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act.

    September 21, 2011 at 12:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Brian Hartman

      The prosecutor thinks the recantations don't make a difference because of *when* they were given, not what they said. If they had given different testimony at trial, or recanted immediately after the trial, that would be more credible than waiting 15 or 20 years.

      September 21, 2011 at 1:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Eloe

      Waiting 15 to 20 years to recant their testimony doesn't make it less credible in my eyes. It would only emphesize the point of how intimidated the eye witnesses were.

      September 21, 2011 at 3:08 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Ron

    My reply to b+ is this: Whites have attacked minorities in this country and elsewhere for centuries. Whether it was with violence, political shanigans, backdoor b.s. or good ol' boy back slapping. The reason there is AN AMERICA is through violence (forgot about the indian?). But all this b.s. about black attacking white is just that...B.S. Most crimes committed by African American is against other African American and I guarantee that a black person killing a white person is ALMOST assuredly going to get a life w/o or capital murder conviction. If Troy Davis WAS white, with the questions regarding his quilt, he would probably have the same sort of people coming to his defense. Whether he did it or not, I don't know, but spare me this black attacking POOR, DEFENSELESS WHITE MAN routine and he's tired of it? African Americans and others in this country have been tired of whites dragging folks behind trucks, hanging folks from trees and having a picnic with it, swindling folks out of their property, etc, etc. Don't be mad at African Americans, be upset with your lame, inbred, mickey mouse, a–hole ancestors! If it weren't for them, we wouldn't be here and you wouldn't have this problem. My suggestion is you go back to Europe and we'll go back to Africa and give it all back to the indians and mexicans. Does that sound like a plan?

    September 21, 2011 at 12:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • GG

      Hail Redskins!

      September 21, 2011 at 12:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ron is moron

      You are racist fk and a loser. People like you are reason for African Americans to be treated with prejustice.
      I don't care for a second about the color of murderer's skin, therefore I have all grounds to suggest you to shovel your lame opinion back into your a$$, where you got it from at the first place.

      September 21, 2011 at 12:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • John Schwendler

      Do you realize your ranting makes absolutely zero sense?

      September 21, 2011 at 1:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • yeltzin

      throws the BS flag..and it looks like a matadoors cape as it sails to center field. Ok – I'm going to car jack or rob someone so hhmm mm- should I select a brotha or sista to victimize or perhaps someone I think got ahead unfairly, whose ancestors abused mine, who I think has victimized me for years? dang – decisions decisions!

      September 21, 2011 at 1:30 pm | Report abuse |
  12. A. Carlisle

    There is just too much doubt. Life without parole maybe, but not the death sentence-come on!

    September 21, 2011 at 12:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lee Harvey Oswald

      People keep saying that there's too much doubt. Where is this coming from? Are we not reading the same article? No one involved with the adjudication of the case has had any doubt whatsoever. If I keep saying that I have a million dollars will that work.....because I'll start now.

      September 21, 2011 at 12:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Eloe

      Lee Harvey Oswald, what you say is incorrect. A former juror said she would render a different verdict, if she would have had all the evidence she has today.

      September 21, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Victoria

    Lawton said on interview with CNN that he does not know for certain what the new evidence brings but he does not find this ignorance as basis to stop the execution and review the said new evidence. The article says that he claims others have not seen the evidence presented to the court, but that is precisely the same place he himself is now by refusing to see the new evidence filed today by Troy.

    September 21, 2011 at 12:55 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Citizen

    Oh gee- the prosecutor says he's guilty – what a surprise! I guess that states it all. If your stomach can take it listen the the video, of this person telling the world"I particularly care about death penalty, but it is law and I am sworn to adhere to Georgia law" there you have it people the bottom line. I wonder why Hitler's henchmen didn't get off in Nuremburg, for the same claim? His oath to Georgia law supercedes every sense of decency and morality, and the number rule of christianity THO SHALL NOT KILL!!!!. Look in his eyes, I see a depraved, frightened empty shell knows what he is doing is- sin, but stuck because he can't break ranks with his other justice gang. They all have blood on they're hands.

    September 21, 2011 at 1:03 pm | Report abuse |
  15. FactFeed

    The problem with all of these news media articles is that not one of them ever actually EXPLAINS how and why the evidence considered by the jury does NOT prove Davis is guilty. What was that evidence and why is it 'insufficient' or 'unreliable' or 'incapable' of establishing guilt? As for the witnesses who recanted or 'changed' their testimony, What was their original testimony and how did they later change that testimony? And what about the two remaining witnesses who did NOT recant or change their testimony? It only takes one witness to make a case (see Connecticut Home Invasion Murder Case).

    The news media has been absolutely useless and irresponsible in failing to explain any of these bedrock issues. This story was supposed to focus in on the nitty-gritty evidence details that would make a reasonable person doubt Davis' guilt. But like all the other media generalized useless tripe, it fails to do that. Apparently, the media is waiting until after this guy is dead before they finally disclose the specific facts and evidence that is so pivotal. It's the same thing the media does when controvercial federal legislation is under consideration - namelt - they don't disclose the outrageous details of the legislation until after it is too late for voters to lobby their legislators. The media in this country is as bad as it can get. Utterly useless, lazy blithering idiots.

    September 21, 2011 at 1:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Eloe

      One good article has been written by journalist Patrick Rogers. It gives a good overview of the events. You can find it at
      kavitachhibber dot com.

      September 21, 2011 at 3:27 pm | Report abuse |
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