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. Jimmy

    All potential deathcases should be decided, up or down, within 5 years. In 2011 and later, that is ample time to review and weigh scientific evidence in appeals without creating a public ward who gathers sympathy while awaiting apppeals reviewing old evidence again and again.

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

      So true. America's endless appeals process makes a mockery of Justice.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • hilo, HI

      -and for all who say, 'But ppl have been exonerated after Decades'.....that was due to New DNA technology. We have it now to apply to current cases.
      Countless inmates crying "Innocent" stopped their appeals & cliams when innocence groups got their cases reviewed in light of DNA....hmmmmm

      September 21, 2011 at 6:14 pm | Report abuse |
  2. hilo, HI


    September 21, 2011 at 5:49 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Sam


    September 21, 2011 at 5:57 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Spartacus




    September 21, 2011 at 6:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bayousara

      Spartacus – how do YOU know for a fact that Davis did the shooting? Were you there? Were you a witness to it? Just because a jury declared Davis guilty means nothing. Look at the Casey Anthony trial. A joke. And so was this one. This case is all about race and hatred of Southerners towards people of color.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • hilo, HI

      Bay, the same way we know that Obama is our president and not a robot or a hologram. Read a little, weigh it out, use your judgement.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:16 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Bayousara

    Bottom line: The prosecutors, the State of Georgia, the family, the jury, NONE of the people who think Davis is guilty would EVER say they have made a mistake! If they were to do so, it would ruin their chances of reelection and other benefits they enjoy. Georgia is racist, the Civil War has never ended, God help the South!

    September 21, 2011 at 6:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • wahoo69

      you need to read Woooowww's post.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:13 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Woooowww

    Most of the people protesting his execution only know what they have heard in the media about this case, somehow making them smarter than the defense attorneys who spent 20 years appealing the conviction and the death sentence. Davis's conviction has been vetted at every possible level in an attempt punch holes in the State's conviction. This occurred both in federal and state court. They were unable to do so. Please stop passing judgment on a legal system you know nothing about and clearly don't understand, and stop taking your talking points from b-list celebrities that know less about the legal system than you.

    September 21, 2011 at 6:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bayousara

      Sorry, we have heard everything the jury heard.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:11 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Cranky Geezer

    "Thou shalt not kill." This applies to state sponsored murder. And "an eye for an eye" is a LIMIT not a LICENSE. And whatever happened to " we forgive those who..." Give him life without parole.

    September 21, 2011 at 6:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Okay, but...

      ...the state may imprison me or fine me in punishment for committed, convicted crimes.

      But this does not make the state a thief or a kidnapper.

      Death penalty opponents would measureably strengthen their case if they would DEMONSTRATE the logic of calling capital punishment state murder (as Henry Schwartzchild of the ACLU's Capital Punishment Project used to do) rather than simply assert it.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • wahoo69

      Do you understand the reason for the death penalty? Evidently not... It is not a deterrent for committing heinous crimes as no matter what law or punishment that is enacted, simply does not work... Does this mean, go easy or no punishment? Certainly not! Life imprisonment? This is the ultimate insult to the dead who have no life, no voice, no existence and a daily slap in the face and taunt to the family and friends who bear the lifelong pain of the loss.

      The death penalty unlike life imprisonment (without parole) ensures that the convicted (remember this, that are found GUILTY in a court of law, by their peers) are put down so there is ZERO chance that they can escape or use loop-holes to overturn righteous convictions. It has happened...

      Answer this... If one of your family member's or close friends were murdered, how would you feel knowing that the convicted could have family and friends visit them in prison. And... Have three meals a day, have a roof over their head, free health-care for life, free education and training, access to exercise and vocational facilities, paid for by you and every other taxpayer.

      The REAL murdered persons of this world have nothing...

      September 21, 2011 at 6:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Fast Fred

      Thou shalt hot kill.......only applies to Christians. We all kill for the state..... thru our armed forces. But we don't take the responsibility for it. WE would all kill to protect our families. Killing is done for different reasons. Woops, I didn't know the gun was loaded.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:35 pm | Report abuse |
  8. my46th

    Why would anyone care what the prosecutor has to say about the case?? He is completely and totally biased. His career and reputation hinge on him being correct. Does anyone really think he is going to give his honest opinion and and/or true facts about the case??? This is a completely useless interview and article.

    If you want to make a decision about the case, look at all the facts yoursellf, don't listen to this guy.

    September 21, 2011 at 6:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Scratch

      So in judging the outcome of a legal case, we should only listen to one side. Got it.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Odds

      All of what you say is true. The prosecutor is absolutely biased. However, the implication here is that we should believe that doubt exists as a result. This is a logical fallacy. Supporters of Davis also have an agenda and, if anything, have even more riding on the outcome.

      The only thing we can do is review the facts in the case, speculate, and then recall that no matter what conclusion we come to, the only opinions that mattered were in that courtroom the entire time.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:28 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Bayousara

    They never found the gun, so how do they know the bullets came from the same gun?

    September 21, 2011 at 6:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Scratch

      They said that the CASINGS came from the same gun. You don't have to have the gun to know whether a bunch of casings (or bullets, for that matter) were used in the same gun. The casings at this crime scene were used in the same gun as the casings in the crime scene for which Davis was already convicted.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Scratch is...

      ...quite correct.

      "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."

      I simply don't understand the characterization of matching shell casings as "unremarkable".

      September 21, 2011 at 6:52 pm | Report abuse |
  10. JohnCBarclow

    Laws against murder are racist, pure and simple. Murder is an act committed disproportionately by black people. Black men are 7 times more likely to commit murder than white men. Therefore, singling out murder as a crime disproportionately affects blacks and is therefore racist. The number of black men in prison could be greatly reduced if murder were made legal or were at least changed to a misdemeanor. Why do we still have these racist laws against murder?

    September 21, 2011 at 6:11 pm | Report abuse |
  11. A smart guy

    The prosecutor said reasoned that the recanting witnesses' were "suspect" because they were not taken under oath and the prosecutor did not have the opportunity to cross-examine the recanting witnesses. The fact is, a court/prosecutor can easily take witness statements under oath (formally) and can just as easily cross-examine those witnesses (informally)... THE REAL ISSUE IS: Why haven't the recanting witnesses' statement been taken under oath, and why hasn't the court/prosecutor questioned/cross-examined the witnesses after they recanted?

    September 21, 2011 at 6:13 pm | Report abuse |
  12. always_do_the_left_thing

    what can we say? .....few years back we had "white " police officer shoot a "colored" guy and he gets "pardoned"....can we please extend the same courtesy

    September 21, 2011 at 6:15 pm | Report abuse |
  13. JD

    " casings from ANOTHER SHOOTING by Davis..." ... guys sounds like he was a solid citizen before getting locked up.

    September 21, 2011 at 6:17 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Frank

    If any of it were true I say act like a dog get treated like a dog..

    Evidence? Conviction?

    He was convicted. Now it is time to pay.....His peers found him guilty..At 7:00pm he will pay the price...

    Crimes have consequences.... Don't do the crime if you don't want to do the time..Or worse pay with your life...

    September 21, 2011 at 6:18 pm | Report abuse |
  15. POD

    So....give him life with no parole

    September 21, 2011 at 6:20 pm | Report abuse |
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