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. Nomad

    Have you ever heard a prosecutor say that there "was" a doubt?

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

      Ahhhh Haaaa!

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

      Yes actually, I have.

      September 21, 2011 at 7:05 pm | Report abuse |
  2. askmehow

    UNITED STATES COURT ALLOW CONTAMINATED EVIDENCE BEFORE JUDGE AND JURY.
    BALLISTIC EXPERT LIED. IT IS FALSE AND MISLEADING. STATE OF GEORGIA NEEDS TO SHOW RESPECT.

    September 21, 2011 at 6:39 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Jesse

    And with the doubt there in Casey Anthony's case, every one wanted her either dead or in jail... Yall some dumb mother f***ers...

    September 21, 2011 at 6:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dan Thompson

      You got a poiint, Jesse

      September 21, 2011 at 6:47 pm | Report abuse |
  4. 2/8

    Humanity's the victim here.....

    September 21, 2011 at 6:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • gager

      Where was the killer's humanity?

      September 21, 2011 at 6:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • 2/8

      Just what I said....everyone's wrong in this. One person's death doesn't warrant another. I have 2 police officers in my family, my father and my brother. I couldn't imagine the trauma his family went through, but even they agree (myself included) that death shouldn't be avenged with more death. It only makes things worse.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Taura

      A conviction does not equal guilt. How could you be convicted without reasonable dobt when you have NO evidence other than what someone said? and 7 of those 9 people have changed their stories. If you think for one moment this man is due to be killed when there is NO hard evidence, than may God have mercy on you!

      September 21, 2011 at 6:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • 2/8

      I just think it's a bloody sad state of affairs. We're never going to learn. If he did do it, then he needs to be punished.....but not killed. If he didn't do it, then an innocent man is going to be murdered all over again.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:51 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Spartacus

    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.

    here's how I know

    I READ the entire CASE

    He was CONVICTED OF IT IN A SEPERATE PART OF THE ORIGINAL TRIAL AND FREELY ADMITS HE DID THAT HOURS EARLIER.

    September 21, 2011 at 6:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Taura

      Do you know how many people have admitted to crimes they didn't do in hopes of a lesser sentence? Do you know how many BLACK men have been wrongly convicted for the cause of attorney's chance to become District Attorney. This is sickening that so many people don't understand this is a modern day legal lynching! It makes me sick to live amongst people who have lied and stole and done whatever the hel/ they wanted to because their skin dictated they could!

      September 21, 2011 at 6:53 pm | Report abuse |
  6. John

    I'm not going to pretend whether or not I know this guy is guilty. But I can say this prosecutor is one naive arrogant POS. There have been hundreds of people exonerated from death row and thousands exonerated from life sentences. In each and every one of those cases the prosecutor was sure there was "no doubt."

    September 21, 2011 at 6:45 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Maria

    If he is guilty and had all the evidence FRY him ! I don't know why when the celebrities get involved they asume the person is not guilty...they don't know the law....they don't went to law school,what I don't agree is if you get death penalty why to wait so many years to kill him? I saw many other killers like Rosendo Ramirez the small Mexican guy who was raping and killing people ..he got executed soon.

    September 21, 2011 at 6:45 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Spartacus

    HE ALSO REFUSED TO CALL EVEN ONE, OF THESE SO CALLED "RECANTERS" AND NOT ONE OF THEM WILL AGREE TO "RECANT" IN A COURT OF LAW.

    THAT'S FACT!

    ALONG WITH THE FACT HE SHOT A GUY IN THE FACE 2 HOURS EARLIER.

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

      Yep, and the casings match the casings at that the scene of that shooting which he admitted to. It's hilarious, you have all these armchair CSI people who haven't even bothered to read the court record stating that there isn't sufficient evidence. Simply because they hear one side's story they go ahead and make a decision.

      Perhaps it's idiotic thinking like this that leads to false convictions and released criminals. People not taking the time to stop and think "Hey, maybe I should look at all the evidence, not just what I'm being presented with."

      Then again, half of the US population is below median intelligence.

      September 21, 2011 at 7:09 pm | Report abuse |
  9. yeltzin

    What time is it boys and girls?

    September 21, 2011 at 6:48 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Ed

    Dave...I hope you are not a cop. Your perspective is just another reason the justice system is questionable as it is. God help you...

    September 21, 2011 at 6:51 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Juda

    just read and learn. so many of you are so wrong on the facts.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Troy_Davis_case

    September 21, 2011 at 6:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • 2/8

      And you're the resident expert on everything to do with this case? What was he wearing the night it happened, where were you in relation to the crime? Don't quote things from the internet....it does very little for your ego.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sharp shooter

      Wikapedia! You think that is fact?! You must have been born in the 90's

      September 21, 2011 at 7:10 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Lynne L.L

    what do the protesting people want ? let him go free or give him life without parole ????
    you all know the criminal have more right then the victim, especially the death victim, blame them.
    there are a few guilty people got to go free , but David got convicted for his crime therefor he to be executed.

    September 21, 2011 at 6:53 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Hooligan

    how is 7 out of 9 witnesses and lack of physical evidence from a case that occurred in 1988 "no doubt"?

    September 21, 2011 at 6:53 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Mark Yelka

    Make prisons profitable. Prisoners should work to earn their keep and not cost taxpayers money. Then, it would be even harder to want capital punishment. They should work to full retirement age at least.

    September 21, 2011 at 6:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Hooligan

      umm... they do. The state uses prison as cheap labor... that is the reason prison is a profitable business.

      What rock are you living under?

      September 21, 2011 at 6:58 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Hermann

    As a german I can tell you that we are responsible for the darkest hours in history of the world. But what you americans are thinking and doing in the 21st century... Hail to your glorious death penalty!!! It feels good to see your nation fade away these days.

    September 21, 2011 at 6:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dan

      Comparing the Holocaust, the murder of millions of innocents, to the execution of the worst murderers in our society, is pretty offensive to Jews.

      September 21, 2011 at 7:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Hooligan

      get over it

      I'll say it again and again

      one person or a million people

      innocent murder is innocent murder.

      September 21, 2011 at 7:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sharp shooter

      Hermann baby, thanks for the humor. That was pretty schwheat. Now go munch der cyanide biscuit

      September 21, 2011 at 7:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Hermann

      You're welcome, Quark shooter.

      September 22, 2011 at 6:00 am | Report abuse |
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