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. Who Cares

    One less person to feed on our tax money. Most likley we are feeding his family or like his family anyway.

    September 21, 2011 at 4:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Callmeishmael

      In all honesty, someone should put your ignorant a** out of its misery as well, and do everyone a favor. Btw, judging from your English skills, I don't think you're paying very much in taxes to begin with. Who's supporting you??

      September 21, 2011 at 5:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • I care

      At somepoint in your life you will to need assistance it maybe tomorrow it could have been yesterday or it maybe someone close to you but how dare you sit here and pass judgement on anyone and their family you dont know him nor his family. You clearly need a awake up call and trust me when I say karam is a bad b**** and you never know when she will show up

      September 21, 2011 at 5:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • TriXen


      September 21, 2011 at 5:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jamie

      Who Cares? Anyone interested in preventing homicide by the state–you are definitely paying for that. Your remarks are out of line by reason of cruelty and assumption without fact.

      September 21, 2011 at 5:44 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Maddy

    Was there any DNA evidence or any other evidence positively linking Davis to the crime? Why did some of the witnesses change their stories and why aren't they coming forward- which ever way they changed their story?

    This is confusing.

    September 21, 2011 at 4:59 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Emmy Skaddittle

    what would fox news say if Obama pardoned him

    September 21, 2011 at 5:01 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Wayne

    System in Georgia? Well, now. I do not think conveyor belts to execution solve judiciary restraint. From now on I expect execution by sword without parole in Georgia. Braised neurons have terrible side effects during the hour of our death–innocents and the rest.

    September 21, 2011 at 5:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • scott

      Please remove your tin foil hat. It is starting to really impact what you are thinking and saying.

      September 21, 2011 at 5:48 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Sharp shooter

    He said he has sworn to uphold the laws of Georgia, the death penalty being one, (more of a penalty, than a law I say, but he's the lawyer) anyway one of those laws would allow the death warrant to be withdrawn right about now.

    September 21, 2011 at 5:10 pm | Report abuse |
  6. really

    Look at this guys past. Convicted of conceiled carry, frequent fighting, etc. Get it over with and remove a low life.

    September 21, 2011 at 5:13 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Jason

    Well less than 2 hrs to go, goodbye Troy! Hope your last meal Sucks

    Hey al sharpton, drop dead tonight of a heart attack will ya

    September 21, 2011 at 5:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • bigfoot9p6

      In keeping with your sense of morality I must say that I hope that you are the next death row inmates victim.

      September 21, 2011 at 5:39 pm | Report abuse |
  8. JusticeNOW

    Herein lies the issue with this case and most death penalty cases. We ask "what if this man is innocent" and most people commenting A) don't care because they have no regard for the life of a black man or woman anyway B) are too myopic and brainwashed to believe that our legal system can get it wrong, though 138 exonerated death row sentences say otherwise, C) generally don't care about anyone or anything outside of their immediate sphere or D) value the life of a police officer more than that of taxpaying citizens they are sworn to protect, which in my opinion is immoral in itself. It just so happens that all these types of these people hold positions of power in our legal system. A corrupt system fueled by corrupt and immoral people in a land growing more and more immoral by the second. Justice will prevail however, one way or the other...

    September 21, 2011 at 5:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jason

      Blah, blah, troy dies in one hour 40 mins. You cant stop it, justice served

      September 21, 2011 at 5:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • JusticeNOW

      LOL! People like you are hilarious! Move on little buddy, grown folk talking.

      September 21, 2011 at 5:23 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Diane

    Georgia is not only money hungry.....with crooked officials and deadbeat money hoarders.But they are head hunters.22 years on death row is more time than he would have gotten anyways.But go ahead and kill and kill and florida let a child killer walk free.Some justice system we have in this great America.Ga will never suceed.

    September 21, 2011 at 5:32 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Mark Yelka

    Justice needs to take economics into consideration. Our justice system allows for, what seems, unending costly appeals. Solutions: limit appeals to an economic number. Make prisons profitable. Then, it's economic to build prisons as needed. I think capital punishment should be done away with: not because it is wrong, but because it is too costly. Of course, if executions could be done without undue taxpayer cost, that might be different.

    September 21, 2011 at 5:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kevin in Atlanta

      When prisons are constructed for the purpose of profit, then it becomes profitable to find any number of ways to increase the prison population. That is why over population in most of the prisons today exist. The prison system is not built to keep order on the streets and reform citizens. Prisons are built for profit. That is the sad truth of it.

      September 21, 2011 at 5:47 pm | Report abuse |
  11. mycoke

    Interesting the differences in comments on this article and the similar article for a white man sentenced to death. Ironic who is calling who a racist and their ability to sytematically categorize people into buckets because they are somehow different.

    September 21, 2011 at 5:40 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Jamie

    Fuzzy thinking = unnecessary premeditated calculated homicide by the state in any case. Lawton = no doubt = what you are paid to say.

    September 21, 2011 at 5:41 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Georgia D.A.

    another one bites the dust

    September 21, 2011 at 5:45 pm | Report abuse |
  14. John

    Without a video, the fact that so many witnesses have recanted is reasonable doubt, especially for the death penalty. What is the rush to execute if there are unanswered questions? Plus, I saw on tv where one of the jurors said that if she knew what she knows now she would never have voted guilty. Without her vote there is no way he could have been found guilty, much less get the death penalty. Our justice system is broken just like our political system in the US. Rich = not guilty.

    September 21, 2011 at 5:46 pm | Report abuse |
  15. sf

    to "JusticeNOW"....I couldn't of said it better! God Bless Troy Davis if he is in fact innocent...we should all be ashamed if he is, and we all sat back and did nothing.

    September 21, 2011 at 5:48 pm | Report abuse |
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