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. John

    Given that it was prosecutorial misconduct that led to the conviction, and police intimidation and coercion of witnesses, it's no surprise that he'd have the position he does.

    September 21, 2011 at 3:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      Where is your evidence that there was prosecutorial misconduct.....because Sean Penn said so?!?!?!?!?!!

      September 21, 2011 at 3:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • rkt210

      Given that we faked the moon landings, Tang should be abolished. See, I can make up stuff and use it in a ridiculous argument, too!

      September 21, 2011 at 3:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Skeptic

      Please provide evidence of the prosecutorial misconduct and witness tampering that you allege. That should be fairly easy if you have read the court transcripts. On the other hand if you are getting all of your information second hand via news reports and from individuals seeking Davis' release, then you might want to consider the source before treating it as gospel.

      September 21, 2011 at 3:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Brett

      You can search some of the court arguments here. You can read witnesses claiming police coercion and recanting their previous testimony

      September 21, 2011 at 3:32 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Jack

    "Some Guy" you write clearly & sagely. It's alway a pleasure to read a well considered thesis. We need more "critical thinking" comments like yours.

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

    They have wasted more time and money than a new trial would have cost!! That's Georgia at our finest!

    September 21, 2011 at 3:13 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Mr. Mike

    The Prosecutor has no doubt of Davis's guilt. Wonderful. Should we just execute everyone the Prosecutor is convinced is guilty? The bottom line is, there is no "do-over" in executing someone. Seems to me if there is an .01% chance he was not guilty or had not received a fair trial than that should be examined. If we lived in a world where overzealous law enforcement didn't make evidence fit to the person they were convinced was the perpetrator, than we would have no worries. But it DOES happen. Look at the Memphis Three.

    September 21, 2011 at 3:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lee Harvey Oswald

      I have the most relevant perspective on the matter yet. It is thus:

      Mr. Davis............buh-bye.

      September 21, 2011 at 3:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • TS

      That is so true! You see people all the time who are freed after spending years and years in prison for crimes they didn't commit. Once you execute someone, that's it. There are no do overs and no amount of money and no apology could ever make up for that type of mistake. If there's even the slighetest chance he's innocent, they don't need to execute. If he is guilty, then he's where he needs to be, in prison. I feel for the victims family, but, if it's necessary to execute someone for a crime, I would want to be 100000% sure they're getting the right person!

      September 21, 2011 at 3:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • jarvis

      Mr. Mike
      You realize he was convicted of shooting someone else in the face the same night? And the bullet from that shooting matched the one used in killing the officer, right?

      September 21, 2011 at 3:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dudley4018

      Executing a single innocent person negates the validity of the entire system. They have to get it right, beyond the shadow of a doubt, in capital cases..

      September 21, 2011 at 3:41 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Curt

    There is ALWAYS a doubt, always a chance of being wrong.

    September 21, 2011 at 3:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dudley4018

      Not always. An admission of guilt, unassailable eyewitness and conclusive(!) evidence allow for capital punishment in many, many cases. In this case there is enough question to make a reexamination proper and legal, says the higher court.

      September 21, 2011 at 3:44 pm | Report abuse |
  6. IsNot

    Ah, Spencer Lawton! I wouldn't trust that man to hand me a dollar bill straight from a bank clerk. He has long had a reputation for evidence tampering, witness manipulation and a lot of other interesting things during his tenure. He was always a grandstander and was doubly during this trial.

    September 21, 2011 at 3:14 pm | Report abuse |
  7. mrbrainwash

    wow, the prosecutor thinks he did it, there's a shocker

    September 21, 2011 at 3:15 pm | Report abuse |
  8. tamars

    A GOOD prosecutor always has doubts.

    September 21, 2011 at 3:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dudley4018

      Apparently they are few and far between, these days.

      September 21, 2011 at 3:45 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Sid Prejean

    As a Public Defender, I wish I had a nickel for every time I heard a prosecutor say that he/she had "no doubt" of a person's guilt.
    For those who have never experienced that conversation, it is equally frequent after a jury returns a "Not Guilty" verdict.

    September 21, 2011 at 3:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • rkt210

      Serious question for you: Do you see your job as protecting the legal rights of your client and uncovering the truth, or doing everything you can to keep your client from receiving a 'guilty' verdict. In other words, if you knew your client had committed the crime for which he was on trial, would you look at every loophole and technicality in the legal system in order to put him back on the street?

      September 21, 2011 at 3:29 pm | Report abuse |
  10. tamars

    A GOOD prosecutor always has doubts. His comments seem disingenuous to me.

    September 21, 2011 at 3:19 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Kiwi1

    I have no idea if this man is guilty as charged, or not. Without studying the trial transcripts, and the subsequent cases, one cannot form an intelligent opinion. However, I do know that the legal system has made plenty of mistakes–both in convicting and acquitting–and I cannot in good conscience support the death penalty for that reason.

    We have all seen the release of convicted men and women subsequently absolved by DNA evidence. Is there any doubt we have executed innocent people? I don't think so. I do not suggest that all DAs and prosecutors are monsters and ogres ... far from it. They have unenviable tasks and staggering workloads. But, a civilized society CANNOT be responsible for the execution of innocent people.

    Capital punishment should be banned. Life imprisonment, meaning the convict dies in prison, should be the penalty for what are now "capital" crimes. It would also do away with the endless, expensive, embarrassing and cruel circus that accompanies each and every capital sentence.

    September 21, 2011 at 3:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • M.Las

      Yes but unfortunately, having them live with food and water and entertainment and exercise and the countless other "luxuries" have to be paid for by someone. I don't like that innocent people are murdered by the state but the people can't foot the bill for criminals for the rest of their lives when there are honest, hard-working, law-abiding citizens that can't afford bread, milk, or gasoline; wondering where they're going to get the money to pay their bills. You kill someone, you die. Period. Personally, put them to better use. Send them to the front lines or have them uproot land mines somewhere - have them do something to benefit society rather than kick back for the remainder of their lives off the taxpayer's dime. Just my thoughts.

      September 21, 2011 at 3:39 pm | Report abuse |
  12. scott

    What a joke . Just get it over with already . Nobody is disputing the fact that he shot another person in the face and pistol whipped a poor homeless person . What a worthless person . How could we ever benifit from not ending his life ????????????

    September 21, 2011 at 3:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • Brett

      Yes they are disputing both those claims. He pleaded not guilty to both the Cooper shooting and the Larry Young beating. And the witnesses back him they believe themselves free from police pressure.

      September 21, 2011 at 3:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dudley4018

      By ending it improperly or without cause. Taking a human life is a very serious thing. The greatest tenets of law surround the ending or possible ending of a person's life. And this is correct.

      September 21, 2011 at 3:48 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Feast of Beast

    Al this conjecture is useless. We'll never know, because obviously just about everyone involved in this case as a witness is a frigging liar. They either lied then, or they lied now, and there should be consequences for that.

    September 21, 2011 at 3:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Brett

      As for me I`d say the police were bigger liars. They clearly did coerce and manipulate witnesses to testify in writing what the police wanted them to. Witnesses claim that when they told the police the truth it is ignored and the police instead threatened them in in order to make them go along with their position so that they could get this case over with. It is easy to see how young black men around the age of 16 could be scared by threats of being made an accomplice. It is easy to see how just a few years later a young 18 man would feel the same pressure to avoid punishment both for the false testimony and the perceived risk of inditing themselves.

      September 21, 2011 at 3:45 pm | Report abuse |
  14. acidrainbw

    trust me.., this guy uses the N word a LOT and could care less if this guy was innocent or not. Just one less darky to deal with as far as Georgia is concerned. If this guy was white and all this was happening, there is no way that the execution would still be going on. I know there will be a lot of people saying that its not like that anymore and blah blah blah, but most of the people who say that are from northern states. trust me, its still like that in "some" parts of the south. ask any of your friends about Jasper Texas or pretty much anywhere in Alabama. hell i had a gun pulled on me by a police officer for nothing more than driving a brand new car with temp plates on it in mississippi (i bought the car like 2 days before this happened so of COURSE i still had temp plates). Like i said, i dont know if this guy is innocent or not but like i said, in Georgia, it wouldn't matter

    September 21, 2011 at 3:33 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Nicole

    I do not support the death penalty at all. However, I wonder about the two witnesses who did not recant their stories. People have been convicted with just one witness, I don't know that it necessarily matters that others have recanted. Was it pressure by the public, was it in fact police coercion? I know they say police coercion, but I also think it must be pressure by the public, and the realization that eyewitness testimony is frequently wrong. This is exactly why the death penalty should be abolished. There is no absolute certain way to make it equal. When death is on the line you must be absolutely certain.

    September 21, 2011 at 3:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Brett

      The 2 witnesses who didn`t recant include Red Coles, the other possible suspect in the case. Well actually maybe there is room for another suspect also. The other non – recanter is a guy Sanders, air force dude, I think who on his first testimony to police stated that he could not identify the shooter. Somehow later he is able to do that. I believe the police convinced him to do that without much trouble. Or possibly like some other witnesses he was shown photos and he followed along with what others were saying as it looked as though the police had the right guy.

      September 21, 2011 at 3:53 pm | Report abuse |
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