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. Mitch

    Time for this mockery of justice for 20 years to end, execute him and be done with it and give the cop's family, the true victims in this case, the resolution they deserve.

    September 21, 2011 at 6:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cool Man E

      like you know what happened were you there personally?

      September 21, 2011 at 6:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • lu, south Fla

      Thank you Mitch - Nice to hear the voice of sanity - MACGRAITH WAS THE VICTIM< NOT DAViS.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mark Latham

      If I were part of the cop's family, and I took closure after seeing the perpetrator of the crime executed, but later found out that the wrong guy was executed, my closure would turn to guilt that I pressed to kill what turned out to be the wrong human being. My closure would suddenly be torn wide open again.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • djwazu

      Mockery of justice It's a mockery alright when you can kill someone even with reasonable doubt!
      Remember what happened when they let those pigs off after the Rodney King beating! Wake up ATL.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Paul Pena

      Typical ignorant trailer trash. You would send an innocent man to death just for blood lust. The reality is only 1 man admitted to being in possession of a .38, Redd Coles who admitted harassing Young (the guy the cop was trying to protect in the first place) and he later confessed to the crime (to an inmate) which a judge dismissed as "hearsay". Davis never admitted to it (neither the shooting at the pool party or the murder) and the cops cannot find this mythical .38 that he possessed. That's right folks the guy who admitted having the caliber weapon that killed the cop is in jail for a minor crime and he is the 1 of 2 remaining witnesses who claim to have seen Davis doing the shooting. There is no physical evidence other than the caliber bullet fired. There is no forensic evidence. In fact the only way we even SUSPECT Davis was involved is because on the very next day after the violent crime Redd Coles told the police about Davis murdering the cop. Interesting... I guess he was just a concerned citizen huh?

      September 21, 2011 at 6:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • lu, south Fla

      Paul Pena: Take your trailer trash comment and stick it. Living in a trailer doesn't make anyone trash.
      The folks who lost their homes in New Orleans and have FEMA trailers, go call them "TRASH" .
      I dare you- but you won't-
      because you are a CYBER BULLY

      September 21, 2011 at 6:45 pm | Report abuse |
  2. catmomof13

    Interesting to note, he never claims to be innocent, never says he didn't do it. The claim is only that the evidence is flawed.
    Why should he get a free pass? The man he killed is still dead. Putting this animal down is the right thing to do.

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

      Why do you lie like this?? He has stated DIRECTLY that HE IS INNOCENT of BOTH crimes (shooting at the pool party and the murder of the police officer). It's amazing how blood lust makes everybody blind.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:55 pm | Report abuse |
  3. agavemike

    What everyone forgets is that he also shot a guy in the face and pistol whipped some homeless person. He should have been executed for that in my opinion.

    September 21, 2011 at 6:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sharp shooter

      Why remember it? Is that why he's sentenced to death? Don't go lurking about at night. It can happen to you. Get mugged, beaten. Hapepens thousands of times. It will happen hundreds of times while he is dying. Someone comes creepi g through your window, cops won't be there, they'll be writing speeding tickets.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:58 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Cool Man E

    georgia is a racist state

    September 21, 2011 at 6:24 pm | Report abuse |
  5. lu, south Fla

    Read the history people..
    if he didn't do it, then WHY did he flee Georgia, come back to Georgia, and TURN HIMSELF IN?
    Y'all are so concerned about Davis. maybe you could show some concern for the young police officer who DIED and lost his entire future?

    September 21, 2011 at 6:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sharp shooter

      He's in jail and isn't going anywhere. Being dead won't bring the cop back, and the cop's family will soon find out that killing this guy isn't the answer.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • luvuall

      Upholding the burden of proof that this man really did kill a cop *beyond a reasonable doubt* is the most respectful thing anyone could do for that police officer's family. He died in the line of duty upholding the law. The least we can do is honor him by protecting its integrity and making sure it's applied fairly. BTW, the recanted testimony didn't just happen a few weeks ago. The recanted testimony was news years ago...

      September 21, 2011 at 6:44 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Cool Man E

    killing a man with no evidence to me is corrupt

    September 21, 2011 at 6:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Paul Man E

      Yes, that would be corrupt. That is not the case here. There is ballistics evidence, eye witness testimony, forensic evidence.... You can argue that the evidence is disputed by some, but not that there is "no" evidence.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:39 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Bayousara

    Hey, Georgia! Are y'all gonna head out to church tonight? How about Sunday?

    Ask your pastor to explain what part of "Thou Shall No Kill" you don't understand.

    September 21, 2011 at 6:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dan

      The word in the Bible there is better translated as "murder". Given that the Old Testament calls for capital punishment in other places, you can't use that Bible verse to say that all executions are banned.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • lu, south Fla

      bayousara: and what part of "FIRST BLOOD" don't you understand???

      September 21, 2011 at 6:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Marc

      and execution is not a murder becauseeeeee......

      are you trying to imply that murder is a murders only when it's ilegal??

      September 21, 2011 at 6:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ashok Bhagat

      tell this to davis.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dan

      Yes, Marc, that's that "murder" means.

      September 21, 2011 at 7:10 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Dan

    While I wasn't there and don't know who did it, I do think it's important to hear both sides of the story, and this side is one that simply hasn't been heard.

    September 21, 2011 at 6:31 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Gary

    I am a reasonable person, and I see reasonable doubt.
    This doubt make me believe that this man might have not committed the crime.
    We are always in to position to judge someone, but just wait until it is our time to be judged.
    As far as I see it, he is better off getting an easy death than staying in this imperfect system.

    September 21, 2011 at 6:31 pm | Report abuse |
  10. gung hoe

    Prosecutor lawton saton has a place saved for your soul .There is no hard evidence in this case which means you execute with
    a shadow of a doubt makes you a murderer And from this day foward everybody that wanted troy killed have fun looking in the mirror cause you also had a hand in murdering troy just hope the glass dont break when you look in the mirror

    September 21, 2011 at 6:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Gary

      I am not religious, but I believe Life is sacred.
      I know man cannot give life, so they should not take it.
      What I do not know is the real consequence one faces after taking another's life.
      I hope it is not pleasant

      September 21, 2011 at 6:35 pm | Report abuse |
  11. dave

    half hour left i hope this guy fries...the cops shoulda shot him twenty years ago anyway and made up some story to avenge macphail

    September 21, 2011 at 6:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dan

      I'm glad you're not a cop.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Hausaue

      I agree, I wish the cops had shot the perpetrator that night... that would mean Davis would never have been put on death row

      September 21, 2011 at 6:39 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Joshua Wertheim

    The people here who are protesting are basing their protests on the spin of the people who don't want this man executed. Fair enough, that's the way of the world. I don't think anyone should have an opinion on the subject unless they either attended the trial or read the transcripts, so they know what they are talking about. All that said, I wonder if the executioner is going to wonder himself whether he's killing the right person or not, and how he will live with doubt about it if he's not 100% certain. Read "The confession" by John Grisham – it's the Troy Davis story minus the real killer.

    September 21, 2011 at 6:34 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Hausaue

    I don't claim to know whether Davis is guilty or innocent. But when 7 out of 9 witnesses against someone come out and recant their testimony, and another individual subsequently confesses to the crime for which that person is on death row, it seems to me that it would be legitimately IMPOSSIBLE for any reasonable person to have "no doubt" as to his guilt. This prosecutor is quite simply lying for his own reasons – partially because it's his job to win and secure convictions, and partially (I suspect) to help himself sleep at night. But to stand there and say, knowing all that we know, that you have "no doubt" about Davis's guilt is a farce, and an insult to the public this man is SUPPOSED to serve.

    September 21, 2011 at 6:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • larry lundin

      Im curious as to why it took over 15 years to recant?

      September 21, 2011 at 6:46 pm | Report abuse |
  14. lu, south Fla

    Show some compassion for our FIRST RESPONDERS +++++++POLICE, PARAMEDICS AND FIRE FIGHTERS ++++++++++
    Officer MacGraith died in 1989 - a young man, just starting in life. Why don't yall protest THAT?????? Is that "FAIR"?????

    September 21, 2011 at 6:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Hausaue

      When someone gets killed, you don't get justice or fairness by killing the wrong person. Most of us don't have a problem with the death penalty in theory – just that there is a very serious chance that Georgia is about to execute an innocent person.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • lu, south Fla

      Hansaue, you just can't show an ounce of care for the dead police officer, can you???????? I have to get off this forum, the human race is so damn cold. goodbye – I hope yall get a heart

      September 21, 2011 at 6:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • Hausaue

      Wow, Lu, you just don't understand do you? I feel terrible for anyone who loses a family member – and the person who killed Officer McPhail deserves the worst punishment out there. But Troy Davis very likely IS. NOT. THAT. PERSON. I don't know how many different ways we need to spell it out for people like you. Maybe you'd get it if you or your kid were on death row for something you knew perfectly well that you DIDN'T DO, and there were people like you jabbering "but think about the victim's family!" as they wheel you off to execute you.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Hausaue

      Also a bit ironic that you're preaching about showing compassion for the victim's family when you demonstrated above that you can't even remember his name... it's McPhail, not McGrath.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:50 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Ed

    To the prosecutor...would you be willing to put your life on it if it is found later this man is indeed innocent? I mean you would then be a murderer yourself...

    September 21, 2011 at 6:36 pm | Report abuse |
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