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. Voltairine

    A lot of people do NOT trust the "justice" system in this country anymore, mainly because there are just far too many examples of their incompetence and/or abuse.

    September 21, 2011 at 3:44 pm | Report abuse |
  2. John Bolivar

    The man deserves to die for his other heinous crimes, even if he did not commit the murder in question, regardless of what old mush for brains Jimmy Carter says.

    September 21, 2011 at 3:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Brett

      There is even less proof for his other crimes than for the crime in question, He never pleaded guilty as far as I have seen to shooting Cooper and beating Young over the head. Young and Cooper have agreed that they cannot say it was Davis who assaulted them. We can actually see Young disowning the testimony he says was forced by investigator who refused him medical treatment until he signed papers pointing at Davis.

      September 21, 2011 at 4:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Alex

      ah, kinda like the Iraq invasion under shrub... you must be a supporter.

      it's great that the prosecutor "thinks" something, the problem is, under scrutiny, there are holes in the case pertaining to the charge that is evidently going to lead to this mans death in the old south, I mean GA.

      September 21, 2011 at 4:23 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Mike

    Killing that cop doesn't sound like such a good idea now, does it mr. Troy Davis? For you, I hope you DO NOT rest in peace.

    September 21, 2011 at 3:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • This is crazy

      It was a security guard, not a cop, and they have no evidence pointing to Davis. That's why this case is so high profile. Get a clue!

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

      crasy, stop spouting off at the mouth about things you know nothing about. Mark MacPhail was a Savannah Police Officer and a former US Army Ranger. He was off duty and stopped to help a beaten homeless man.

      September 21, 2011 at 4:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • Brett

      Ok so you believe he is guilty as charged. I believe there was not any evidence in trial to pin either Coles or Davis to the crime. With another trial without police interference they may be able to discover through patient cross examination what is true and what is not In the original trial the false testimony locked Davis up without the need for unanswered questioned to be considered. The T-Shirts, the motive for beating Larry Young, the relationship between Coles and Davis, the many others who`s testimony and brains weren`t picked such as the several air force guys in the van.

      One thing we don`t consider in our vengeance is that both Coles and Davis if guilty may have gone running home to their families saying "I`m in trouble" or even "I shot a cop" And distressed at what they had done quite in contrast to the portrayal of one proven false witness who claimed that the murderer had smiled when finishing McPhail off. Maybe whoever it was did shoot that cop with cold effort then again maybe he was startled, ran and fired behind him while trying to make a get away fearing that he himself would soon be shot by the officer. This is garbage of course, if you are beating a guy and a cop unexpectedly comes round the corner, The stakes are suddenly higher. A fool would run and not realize it was better to give up. But I can`t execute a man for being such a fool. Murder charge yes.

      September 21, 2011 at 4:20 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Jean Sartre, WI

    I have absolutely NO DOUBT about the prosecutor's lack of reason or sanity...

    September 21, 2011 at 3:51 pm | Report abuse |
  5. This is crazy

    Duhhh you are the prosecutor...u are supposed to say that. Imagine how embarrassed he would be if the case was over turned. They have no evidence, witnesses changing to defense, and a confession of guilt from someone that said they actually did the crime. This is crazy!!

    September 21, 2011 at 3:51 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Joseph

    At issue here is whether or not the national public has faith in the Georgia justice system. Southern justice systems have been plagued with discrimination. If a polygraph test, or any other means of reasonable defense are being obstructed by the prosecution in Georgia, the US Justice Dept. should take over the case. Enough organizations & people are very upset about this particular case. Georgia should be relieved of its responsibility in the matter so the public has no doubt fair justice is served.

    September 21, 2011 at 3:55 pm | Report abuse |
  7. heime

    3 hours to blastoff! tick-tock-tick-tock

    September 21, 2011 at 3:59 pm | Report abuse |
  8. boooner

    get rid of this bag of shhht already and move on to something else

    September 21, 2011 at 3:59 pm | Report abuse |
  9. LIz

    Several individuals who recanted? It certainly would warrant further investigation in my mind.

    September 21, 2011 at 4:03 pm | Report abuse |
  10. mightyfudge

    Christians have a serious problem with their bible – Vengeance and Forgiveness are mutually exclusive. And we wonder why 90% of them are outright hypocrites. It's not their fault, they were raised that way...

    September 21, 2011 at 4:10 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Guest

    There is no question he shot a man in the face...which could be reasonably taken to mean he meant to kill that man...and this is the guy everyone is trying to save? Based on the idea that someone else got their hands on the same gun and actually did manage to kill someone with it...and the best this guy can say is that he did not actually pull the trigger on the second guy? Is this really the guy everyone is so put out to save? Really? Did I get that story right...?

    September 21, 2011 at 4:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Brett

      There certainly is question whether he shot that man in the face. The witnesses to that incident also recanted their testimony. And the linking fo the guns claim has not been properly substantiated. This was the police plan set him for both crimes and the case becomes even more air tight.

      September 21, 2011 at 4:32 pm | Report abuse |
  12. lu, south Fla

    I cannot BELIEVE that Jimmy Carter mouthing off in this case. That is inexcusable. He had his time of power, it's over and he needs to let Georgia lawmakers do their jobs. I guess Jimmy had a dull summer and needs to get on the stump about some issue.

    September 21, 2011 at 4:11 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Emile Mervin

    We know the name of the prosecutor in this case, Spencer Lawton, but now we need the names of the Georgia Prisons and Parole Board so all of America and the world can be aware of who are the killers of Troy Davis. Yes, let's have their names and faces plastered on Facebook, on Youtube and every social media around the world.

    Let the world know that America, which loves to pride itself on 'justice for all', is still home to racists in Georgia who are determined to relive the days of segregration when there was no concern about killing a black man for even looking at a white woman.

    If Troy Davis was caught in the act by police officers killing another police officer, I'd say let him face the death penalty. However, this case was based on NINE EYEWITNNESES, seven of whom have since recanted and six of whom have since said they were coerced.

    There were no fingerprints. There was no DNA. How do you execute a man based on eyewitnesses' accounts? It's just like the segregation days when a white woman would run and report that a Black man looked at her, and a group of white men would descend on him and mete out white justice.

    This is no longer an open and shut case; it cries out for a true sense of justice for both the deceased cop and the accused, and since the accused's accusers have changed their original position, it behooves the Georgia justice system to change its position, too, or assume the role of the accused Troy Davis.

    How many Black men in America have spent decades in prison for crimes they did not commit and are now being freed because of DNA? Prosecutors and cops are known to have concocted charges against Black and Hispanic men in order to win a conviction and pacify some concerned members of society or to advance their own careers. But men who were executed under a cloud of doubt cannot be revived, even if DNA were to exonerate them.

    Black America must hold the Georgia Prison and Parole Board accountable for Troy Davis's death if they go ahead and execute him, after 7 of 9 eyewitnesses whose testimonies led to him receiving the death penalty, have since recanted.

    September 21, 2011 at 4:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • lu, south Fla

      E Mervin: There was evidence found on Davis' shorts, in his mother's home. Judge threw out the evidence, only because Davis' mother 'didn't want the house searched'.

      September 21, 2011 at 4:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Emile Mervin


      If the judge threw out evidence, then it is not admissable evidence. Our justice system has to go with ADMISSABLE EVIDENCE! And remember, Troy Davis was convicted on EYEWITNESSES' TESTIMONY, not EVIDENCE. Now if evidence was what convicted him, and it turned out that the evidence was faulty, should he still be executed? No! Likewise if the eyewitnesses have recanted, it is the same as discovering evidence was faulty. You can't execute!

      September 21, 2011 at 5:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • lu, south Fla

      Emile: Were you an Anthony juror? SOUNDS LIKE IT.
      The stain in the trunk was deemed unimportant. The 'smell of a dead body' from Grandpa was unimportant. Anthony's web of lies was unimportant.
      There is no such thing as "100% positive without a doubt". and I think that Georgia has met the burden of proof-

      September 21, 2011 at 6:30 pm | Report abuse |
  14. lu, south Fla

    How about some grief for MacPhail?????? A public servant, a police officer, who stopped to help a homeless man and got murdered????

    September 21, 2011 at 4:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • boooner


      September 21, 2011 at 4:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Brett

      You know it is like you are trying to give equal praise to children or something. A man will be executed in a few hours of a crime many people believe he did not commit. This is all about McPhail. It is about who really killed Mr McPhail and honoring that man`s death with the truth. I am sure he would not feel honored if the wrong man was incarcerated for 20 years and executed for something he did not do. It is not the time to dwell on the good man that the young officer was. Even for the victims family I would say that. It is truly unfortunate that we do not properly care and concern ourselves over victims following such crimes but the day before a man is executed is not the time for that unless it is clear they have the right guy.

      September 21, 2011 at 4:29 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Mark Siegel

    The issue here for me is not whether Mr. Davis committed the murder. The issue is the death penalty. Whether by lethal injection, gas or electrocution, it is cruel and unsual punishment. That is why all first-world countries, except the United States, have banned it. All the death penalty does is satisfy our need for revenge, which is different than real justice. And, there is simply no evidence to suggest that the death penalty deters crime. It is long past time that our wonderful country did away with this ghastly and uncivilized practice.

    September 21, 2011 at 4:16 pm | Report abuse |
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