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."

Post by:
Filed under: Courts • Crime • Death Penalty • Georgia • Justice
soundoff (1,145 Responses)
  1. ADiff

    Very impressive presentation by the prosecutor. It's good to know rational, reasonable and good men have prevailed. His remarks about mob law were especially pertinent. It's far too common and it's good to hear a principled stand against it that's actually prevailed.

    September 21, 2011 at 1:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • JEM

      O.J. was innocent and everyone KNEW he was guilty.
      Do a Google search for "OJ Guilty but not of Murder".
      OJ's son Jason did the murders; not OJ

      September 21, 2011 at 1:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Yanke61

      How is it that U.S. District Judge William T. Moore Jr. said while Davis' "new evidence casts some additional, minimal doubt on his conviction, it is largely smoke and mirrors." Evidence casting some doubt still equals the death penalty?

      September 21, 2011 at 1:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • D

      Really? He did not point to a single piece of evidence that proves Troy Davis guilty. All he said was that people did not know the whole story. Well, what is the real story?

      Considering he has chosen to been silent all these years since, wouldn't he at least want to take a moment to explain to all the protesters why they are misinformed?

      I have no clue if he is guilty or not, but there clearly are a lot of questions and the Prosecutor did absolutely nothing in this article to answer them.

      September 21, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lee Harvey Oswald

      Yes. It was not enough to prove his innocence or even enough to grant him a new trial. That's why he chose the words minimal as well as smoke and mirrors. In case someone didn't understand him.

      September 21, 2011 at 1:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Thor

      A white prosecutor from Georgia is stupid and arrogant. His lack of intelligence shows that he cannot see the obvious illogic of accepting the word of the witnesses, but, not accepting the word of the witnesses. He is too stupid to recognize that given this logical connundrum, that the rest of the thinking world is laughing at his stupidity. He is too arrogant to accept that he COULD be wrong. He is too stupid to recognize that given tainted evidence, the jury would make an erroneous judgement. He is too arrogant to accept that a jury in Georgia could make an error in judgement, regardless of the reason. He is too arrogant that Georgia Law Enforcement is not necessarily perfect, especially when investigating a death of one of their own. The arrogance is pervasive in that the Georgia based Prosecutor feels that it is too ascendant to accept the possibility that "an outsider", "a yankee", "a common laboror" could possibly be more able to cognate than the exalted District Attorney.

      September 21, 2011 at 1:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ronald Hussein Reagan

      ADiff – you're getting intelligent and articulate mixed up with rational and reasonable. Hitler had intelligent articulate people working for him, too.

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

      What's impressive? That contaminated evidence is allowed in a U.S. court? Nothing impressive about that, in fact few even complaint.

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

      Thor: How could all of those people be be wrong.

      September 21, 2011 at 1:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • mgc florida

      Impressive , really, so reasonable doubt no longer matters in a death penalty case. 7 of 9 recant and thats not reasonable doubt? Hope you never have a family member in this spot, it will come back to haunt you.

      September 21, 2011 at 1:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Thor

      Teamroper; What is it that was right about any of them? The witness testemonies are now mutually exclusive: You can't have your cake, and eat it too. Either the witnesses statements are acceptable, or they are not. If the witnesses, even in a Georgia courtroom, give equally opposite statements, then, they are nulled. That means those witness statements are not usable by the jury, except to call into question why they lied. Why would they have ever risked lying on the stand back then? Because Georgia cops don't have a good reputation in the minds of those witnesses.... that's why. Now, yes, they are going to bear the burden for their lies. They will have killed Mr Davis. WE however, could make sure.... absolutely sure.... that there is no doubt. DOUBT.... the standard used in all American courts as a defense in murder cases. I can't believe that anyone here believes that Georgia police officers are so perfect that they have not let their emotions guide their pursuit of a killer.... any person.... on which to pin this murder. How could they all be wrong? Well..... I think it is REASONABLE to accept that Georgia law enforcement tainted the evidence. A badge and a gun can convince a lot of "oppressed" to bend to their will....

      September 21, 2011 at 1:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Quent

      To put someone to death with Reasonable Doubt is a crime in itself. I feel bad for Justice if he's not guilty.

      September 21, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Alex

      Lee Harvey:

      "Yes. It was not enough to prove his innocence or even enough to grant him a new trial. That's why he chose the words minimal as well as smoke and mirrors. In case someone didn't understand him."

      So now we need to prove our innocence in court? That's the whole issue with this case, he was guilty until proven innocent. He should have been granted a new trial, not appeals. If he was guilty they would have came to the same outcome, judged by his peers, not a board of judges.

      September 21, 2011 at 2:34 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Jim2 (not to be confused with Jim)

    "Prosecutor says he has no doubt about Troy Davis' guilt" . . . Of course. The purpose of a prosecutor is to win a conviction. The prosecutor does not care about whether or not the accused is actually guilty or not. Number of convictions is what keeps the prosecutor employed. Asking a prosecutor to second guess a conviction is like asking a surgeon post-surgery if they thought the surgery was really needed or not.

    September 21, 2011 at 1:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Gary


      September 21, 2011 at 1:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • SUE

      Well then, I guess your argument goes both ways. The Defense purpose is the same as the Prosecutor.

      September 21, 2011 at 1:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • JEM

      Prosecutors serve the interests of the STATE; not you or the public or the cause of justice.
      OJ was innocent of murder.
      Google "OJ Guilty but not of Murder"

      September 21, 2011 at 1:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • frank

      100% correct. The role of a prosecutor used to be to present all the facts. Now it is the job of a prosecutor to win. Whether the person did the crime or not seems to have been tossed out the window long ago. Gotta love electing those that prosecute others.

      September 21, 2011 at 1:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • teamroper

      Jim 2: I believe that most prosecutors really do care if someone is innocent. I also believe that far more defence lawyers don't care whether they're innocent or not... they just want the money.

      September 21, 2011 at 1:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Real world

      Right. Tomorrow we'll hear from the defense attorney, who's sure he's innocent. Friday it's MacPhail's family, and on Saturday Davis's family. Think about where your information is coming from. teamroper, I hate to tell you, but prosecutors' first concern is their win/loss record. Why do you think that even for minor crimes they offer plea bargains? If they think they don't have a case, they'll offer a nothing sentence for a plea to a lesser charge; they now have a win. The defendant saves money and gets it over with.

      September 21, 2011 at 2:07 pm | Report abuse |
  3. DaveNYUSA

    Isn't asking a prosecutor if he was WRONG like asking Obama if he has a CLUE?

    September 21, 2011 at 1:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • C

      Obviously you don't have a clue since Obama is not the subject of this discussion.

      September 21, 2011 at 1:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Margroks

      Yes. Obama is NOT the subject of this article.

      September 21, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • teamroper

      But does he have a clue?

      September 21, 2011 at 1:39 pm | Report abuse |
  4. frank

    Good to know he is ok with killing a possibly innocent man. Not that we know for a fact he is innocent, but he might be. Are we ok with that as Americans?

    September 21, 2011 at 1:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lee Harvey Oswald

      Yes, we're perfectly fine with it. No problems at all.

      September 21, 2011 at 1:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • xjdavid

      No one has said that he didn't shoot that other guy in the face who lived, right? So, in what way is he "innocent"? Please explain.
      If he didn't kill the police officer, then he certainly made his own choices that caused him to be accused of it. Also, "reasonable" doubt does NOT mean "a thin, remote possibility" of doubt.
      Davis just isn't worth saving. He is solely to blame for his situation, and good riddance.

      September 21, 2011 at 2:26 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Anonymous

    He shot somebody earlier in the night but he wants us to believe that he, like, totally didn't shoot the second guy? Come on people. Wake up. He's guilty. Major PR campaign using race as a weapon. This DA makes a lot of sense. The facts are there.

    September 21, 2011 at 1:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • SkekLach

      Whoa, hold the phone! I may have shot that guy at the pool party in the face, but I ain't no murderer!

      September 21, 2011 at 1:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Thor

      OK! That's it. You dumb bunnies need to understand that you don't use the evidence from one violation to convict the other. Otherwise, if you were given a traffic ticket for speeding in Florida then, you should be able to use that evidence that you must have been speeding in Georgia too! ..... oh.... wait a minute..... we ARE talking about Georgia law here. Sorry, I thought I was in the United States. Never mind.

      September 21, 2011 at 1:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • ick

      Hey Thor, If you crash your vehicle into another car injuring someone in Florida, could you use the paint samples from that crash to prove the same vehicle crashed into another driver in Georgia? I believe that is a better analogy. They used bullet casings from a gun that he used to commit a crime earlier and matched them with casings from bullets used in the murder. Duh!

      September 21, 2011 at 1:58 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Ed W.

    There are too many people in the world anyway. I support the Death Penalty in every crime just to help lower overpopulation.

    Plus, this guy is guilty. He shot someone earlier in the night, then shot the cop. How can he be guilty of one and not the other?

    September 21, 2011 at 1:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Yankee61

      Then I suppose he is guilty of all shootings that occurred that evening?

      September 21, 2011 at 1:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Think B4 U Post

      Perhaps the same way you can begin a post with such a ridiculous, extreme indictment of the entirety of humanity and then end the same post with an attempt at rationale. Dodo.

      September 21, 2011 at 1:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • teamroper

      Ed is right. Get over it.

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

      "I support the Death Penalty in every crime just to help lower overpopulation." Your elevator doesn't to the top floor, right Ed?

      September 21, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ed W.

      My elevator got stuck on the 15th floor some time in the 90's.

      As for the other reply, "Then I suppose he is guilty of all shootings that occurred that evening?"

      Hrmm...maybe...however they would have to do a ballistics test against the other shell casings from that evening's murders.

      See, when you compare casings you can identify shells from the same weapon, even without the weapon.

      "Perhaps the same way you can begin a post with such a ridiculous, extreme indictment of the entirety of humanity and then end the same post with an attempt at rationale. Dodo."

      Where is my indictment of the entirety of humanity? Saying the world is overpopulated with humans is an indictment of humans?

      If I were to indict humanity...this would be a statement more akin to that, "Humanity is a bunch of self centered destructive monkey's who stopped throwing feces at each other and started lobbing missiles."

      Now THAT'S an indictment.

      And yes, I admit it...I am a dodo.

      September 21, 2011 at 2:00 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Rondo

    He was proven guilty in a court of law with 7 blacks on the jury. He had his appeal. These internet armchair lawyers are funny. You have very little facts, yet you judge. I think its alot of the anti death penalty crowd anyway. The people crying racist haven't got a clue. He is going to die because he murdered. Not because he is black. Blacks commit 50% of all murders in the United States according to the department of justice even though they are only 14% in population. It should be no surprise of the number on death row. As for the social ills that cause this, this litlle box is too small to get into that.

    September 21, 2011 at 1:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • D

      Rondo...wanna know what's funny? The Prosecutor in this article said that nobody in the public knows all the facts...which includes YOU. How is that judging going for you?

      Just saying...

      September 21, 2011 at 1:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • teamroper

      Because Rondo's done more research than you

      September 21, 2011 at 1:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • CrabMeat

      Well said, Rondo!

      September 21, 2011 at 1:59 pm | Report abuse |
  8. doctormota

    Same story: A poor person who could not afford a good defense is going to bring a false relief to the victim's family who will never know who really killed their loved-one. The Governor could stop this atrocity but he will not...unless CNN and Delta Airlines threaten to move their Headquarters should this execution goes ahead. This is how much a life it is worth to a career politician.
    This will be another sad day for this great nation were so many are uninformed: Texas has the higher rate of executions and also one of the higher crime rates. The real criminal could not care less about death and this is why other democratic countries do not endorse the death penalty.

    September 21, 2011 at 1:39 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Mike from Calgary

    What else would you expect from the State Prosecutor .. that the state twisted the arms of people to say on the stand whatever the state wanted them to say. 7 witnesses and counting of 9 witness feel ashamed that they collaborated with the state to construct a criminal case against Troy Davis!
    The prosecutors remarks sound like those of an officials in CHINA, NORTH KOREA OR IRAN!

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

      Fry him

      September 21, 2011 at 1:43 pm | Report abuse |
  10. joe

    i smell poop

    September 21, 2011 at 1:42 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Mike

    "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."

    Very convenient, since the prosecution is the agency preventing this case from receiving a new trial. where these witnesses would be subject to cross-examination.

    September 21, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Bill

    So if the Pope, a bunch of celebrities, and 600,000 people decide you should die because they think you are guilty of something. Should we listen to them instead of the court system? If this were the case O.J. would have got the needle instead of walking free. While our system isn't perfect, at least it isn't a mob rules system.

    All this "Doubt" comes from people outside the system, and several of them are using this situation to push a political agenda. Troy Davis lawyers have had 20 years to prove his innocence. If they can't prove his innocence then he gets punished.

    The whole "there is too much doubt to execute this man" argument does not apply. If there is as much doubt as people claim, then the man should be set free. Reasonable doubt regarding whether or not he committed the murder means he is not guilty. It does not mean we commute his sentence and leave the man in jail. The people opposing his execution should step up to the plate and either back setting the man free or admit they are using him to push their "no death penalty" agenda. I haven't seen celebrities wearing "Free Troy Davis" t-shirts. Why? Probably because they don't want the man freed. They just want to use him to get some extra media attention.

    September 21, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Karen

    I hate CNN. There is absolutely no critical thought or journalistic analysis to any of their articles. Seriously this paper hates people of color, they hate liberalism, and they hate logical thought and analysis. If you didn't want to be in the news business CNN? why do you call yourselves a news network?

    September 21, 2011 at 1:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rondo

      Logical thought? Yes the people that were at the trial and had the facts said he is guilty. Just because you don't agree with it doesn't make him any less guilty as proven in a court of law. Neither does being black. If it isn't your way, the whole network is bad? There are others to choose from. I suggest you do that.

      September 21, 2011 at 1:49 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Bobby

    The same crowd trying to get their names in the paper and be interviewed for financial gain. Al Sharpton has had over 20 years to fight on behalf of this guy but showa up 4 days before his day of execution. Money bags Al. Mr. Davis will get the peace he is ooking for at 7.

    September 21, 2011 at 1:49 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Andy

    I don't know if he is innocent or not, but how can the prosecutor feel so strongly with all of the changes to the witness testimony? I setup a debate on this topic at (

    September 21, 2011 at 1:50 pm | Report abuse |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36