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. RiadaKram

    If Davis were whi te, you self-righteous leftist a ss es wouldn't even be posting these inane comments. Unless of course the victim were bl a ck, then of course the mob would be shouting CRUCIFY HIM! CRUCIFY HIM!

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

      WRONG. If Davis were white, and had shot a police officer, folks would still want him dead. Stop playing that old song.

      September 21, 2011 at 2:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Steve W

      Stop that nonsense. A WHITE man is about to die for killing a black one, in Texas. Nobody is asking for clemency.

      September 21, 2011 at 2:43 pm | Report abuse |
  2. nativeTX

    All you bleeding heart, no-death penality liberals need to stay far away from Texas. If you take a life, we look for the nearest hanging tree. This country has reached the point where individual freedom trumps the common good.... and that is why our prisons are full and why we still need the death penalty.

    September 21, 2011 at 1:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lee Harvey Oswald

      Yeehaw.

      September 21, 2011 at 2:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • trainwreck

      yeah here in texas our state will execute if we just think you killed someone, it doesnt matter if theres evidence...string em up, and if there might be evidence of innocence, we wont allow it after the fact so our system looks like its a winner. the death penalty is MURDER and puts us in the same category of killer countries like China and Iran...

      September 21, 2011 at 2:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • nLewek

      No you IDIOT. Our prisons are full because they are full of non-violent criminals. Do some research. READ SOMETHING. Oh wait, you're from TX, you can't read. I'm amazed that you got your mom to type this for you.

      September 21, 2011 at 2:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • NYB

      If guilt is such a certainty, then there should be no reason for Judge, jury and prosecutor to not be willing to forfit their lives and everything they have acquired since conviction if the convicted is ever found "not guilty". Especially since they will become murders by default.

      September 21, 2011 at 2:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • warmesTghosT

      I'm a liberal and I'm 100% for the death penalty...in cases where there is DNA evidence and no room for reasonable doubt. This is not such a case.

      Frankly I wouldn't go anywhere near your hick state, I wish you'd secede and take your ret*rd governor with you.

      F*** texas.

      September 21, 2011 at 2:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • jennyy

      i love my state of texas, here we chain blacks to pickup trucks and drag them until dead!

      September 21, 2011 at 2:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • sparknut

      Executing innocent people is not justice. Is barbarism.

      September 22, 2011 at 12:10 am | Report abuse |
  3. Some guy

    I cannot say with certainty whether he is guilty or not. I cannot believe how strong the opinions of people are to whether he is guilty or not. Very few have seen every piece of evidence and I am sure anyone who has seen it all is not posting their opinion on the comment board of CNN. Everyone keeps trying to comb over these stories and find the smoking gun. But everyone has to remember who is writing these stories and what they stand to gain. The media profits from everyone coming to their site. How many times have media organizations written or quoted someone in a manner to get a particular reaction? For that matter, what do all these people and organizations stand to gain by coming out of the woodwork now? Is everyone that naive that they think that Sharpton and the other celebs really have poured over the evidence and determined that this guy is innocent. They probably know less than most of us and we probably have less 1% of the information. And most of that is tainted by the media organization reporting it. I just cannot believe that this case has made it up to the Supreme Court and back down and not once was the verdict questioned. I can see a DA trying to win a reelection or a cop trying to get a promotion railroading a person. I cannot see what all these appellate court and Supreme Court judges had to gain by overlooking something and upholding the conviction. The other thing I cannot understand is all these people that keep saying that there is enough doubt that he should get life and not be executed. But if there is enough doubt, why not set him free. People need to separate their opposition to the death penalty and their opinion on conviction. They are not the same. In this case the penalty for a guilty verdict was death. Not well we think you did it, but I am not 100%, so we will just give you life in prison.

    September 21, 2011 at 2:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • NYB

      You make some very pertinent points. However, the "game" of justice dosen't allow for re-evaluation of "supposed facts" after jury verdicts. Only "new" evidence that the "state" renders relevant is allowed during appeal. Once convicted you must "prove" wrongful conviction. However, 120+ times now, persons convicted and sentenced to death have done just that and not one person responsible for these wrongful convictions has been "held accountable" leagally and or paid any penalty for their actions. Maybe our "Justice" system isn't so just after all.

      September 21, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mickey45

      Well said.

      September 21, 2011 at 2:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • marcus

      You hit it right on the nail. This outcry is a cross between people that don't believe in the death penalty and other people that they are able to misinform. I understand the logic behind the people that are not for the death penalty but they should stick to their position and not try to manipulate the situation. Then again if I were against the death penalty I would do whatever I could to save a life. And so the story continues on..... Smart post though.

      September 21, 2011 at 2:30 pm | Report abuse |
  4. NotInnocent

    As much as I disagree with handing out the death penalty without clear forensic evidence and better witness testimony, this man is clearly not an INNOCENT man, he did shoot someone in the face earlier in the evening, his intent there must have been to kill. I will not lose any sleep knowing that someone like that paid a price, although I would rather just see him stay in prison.

    September 21, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Antonino Scalia

    I was really expecting the prosecutor to say he thought the guy might be innocent................................then I woke up

    September 21, 2011 at 2:08 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Africanlegend

    There is reasonable doubt...That's plan an simple. The fact that we are having this discussion is evidence of that.

    September 21, 2011 at 2:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lee Harvey Oswald

      There is the appearance of doubt from people who don't support the death penalty and people who know nothing of the case. The people most intimate with the details have no doubt at all. His due process has been satisfied.

      September 21, 2011 at 2:16 pm | Report abuse |
  7. me

    okay, how many of you were either the judge, the jury, or an observer in the courtroom during the trial who can honestly say what evidence was presented, show of hands? Anyone? That's what I thought.

    September 21, 2011 at 2:18 pm | Report abuse |
  8. 2DPoint

    No doubt – and no proof. This case will haunt the U.S. Justice System forever. This is an unjustified cheap execution.
    I pray to the God the real killer is soon discovered and that the blood-thirsty family of the slain officer will be around to witness justice – FINALLY!

    September 21, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      "Blood Thirsty"?!?!?!?! You defend someone who admits shooting somebody else in the face and who a jury found guilty of murdering a cop and you have the gall to call the VICTIMS family blood thirsty. You are all wrong in the head. I am sure you also feel that the death penalty makes all of us the same as the murderers we execute....another bit of ridiculousness that the anti DP side throws out there all the time. Davis was represented by lawyers at a public trial and had multiple appeals all the way up to the supreme court. That is far more than HIS victims received the nite he killed them....so F%$& YOU for saying I am the same as that soon to be dead P.oS.!

      September 21, 2011 at 2:56 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Redmond

    My opinion in the matter like said by other posters. This man is not innocent. However comma death penalty needs much more stringent evidence to take a life. I do not believe that the prosecustion met burdon of proof. Should this man be in Jail? You betcha. Without air tight evidence he should not be killed. Shady executions with shady evidence casts cascading dought for the tall blind lady with the scale.

    September 21, 2011 at 2:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • morbus gravis

      i would call the shell caseings matching the shell caseing from thei attempt to murder cooper and the cops blood on his shorts some pretty damning evidence. plust 9 witnesses. ya hes guilty. if that cant convict nothing can

      September 21, 2011 at 2:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Redmond

      The shell casings somehow wound up in the same evidence bag. > Shady
      Key Witnesses have later Recanted thier testimony > Shady
      The Perp > Shady
      But evidence errorded death penalty > Shady

      September 21, 2011 at 2:38 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Bill

    He has to be guilty or Nancy Grace would be on top of this right. Wrong, she only associates with laws against the young children and hot moms.

    September 21, 2011 at 2:32 pm | Report abuse |
  11. chbriet

    You can either be christian (as so many here claim to be) or for the death penalty. Accfording to the New Testament, you cannot be both.

    September 21, 2011 at 2:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • morbus gravis

      really it says that in the new testament you can be for both? please give me the bible verse

      September 21, 2011 at 2:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • JC

      Morbus...

      Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

      And then of course there's that pesky bit about executing Jesus himself.

      The New Testament is pretty clear on the fact the the "eye for an eye" approach in the Old Testament is wrong.

      September 21, 2011 at 2:54 pm | Report abuse |
  12. NYB

    To all you people who believe in God; He gave us 10 commandments. Not the "Bible", not the "Koran", not the Tohra (sp), just 10 commandments. One of them says, if I'm not mistaken, "THOU SHALL NOT KILL". In case you missed it, that is a period after the quote. Boy, "God sure must be real disgusted with us.

    September 21, 2011 at 2:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • morbus gravis

      thats a mistranslation, im surprised you didnt know that by now. the corrrect translation is "thou shalt not murder" the hebrews killed many times in wars. god even told them to kill. but murder is unjustified killing.

      September 21, 2011 at 2:37 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Annon

    Where is the so called supreme court ? oh, I forgot, the newly appointed judges were appointed by Bush.

    September 21, 2011 at 2:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • abidingdude

      The evil "Bush" Supreme Court ordered a review of the case in 2009. Troy Davis was still found guilty after that hearing.

      September 21, 2011 at 2:41 pm | Report abuse |
  14. abidingdude

    99% of you Ivory Tower folks who've been fooled by Troy Davis' puppy-dog photo will have forgotten all about him by this weekend. Where were all of you ten years ago? You've had plenty of time to study the ACTUAL DETAILS of this case, not just the bits and pieces that will fit into a TV news segment.

    September 21, 2011 at 2:38 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Twisted

    BS! the guy is not guilty of murder. The casings at the first shooting were switched by someone who found the murder weapon, discharged a few shots, and threw the weapon away. If there is no doubt that Troy Davis shot the first guy (in the face) what does he say he did with the weapon afterwards? Why can't the weapon he used be found?

    September 21, 2011 at 2:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • morbus gravis

      sometimes people hide the weapons they use for murder and crimes to get rid of evidence. you didnt know that???

      September 21, 2011 at 2:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      I love ridiculous logic like this! As morbus stated, criminals who use a gun in commission of a felony often dispose of them to eliminate evidence. Some dumb ones do a bad job and get caught in real life. Only in TV cop shows and movies to they always find the gun. So the logical conclusion is that he threw it in the nearest lake, river, stream, sewer. But rather than believe that, you choose to believe that "Somebody" conspired to reuse the gun after he did in the first shooting to falsify the casings and frame him for the cop killing. Which sounds more logical??? I bet you also believe that 20 or so LA cops conspired to frame OJ!

      September 21, 2011 at 3:06 pm | Report abuse |
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