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. pops

    Maybe he should have won himself a Hiesman trophy and co-starred in some dumb forgettable movies. He would have gotten off scot free.

    September 21, 2011 at 7:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • mthompson

      Are you calling the Naked Gun forgettable? I would suggest that you sir will never produce anything remotely as funny and timeless as that. Funny comment and all, but let's not be stupid.

      September 21, 2011 at 7:22 pm | Report abuse |
  2. gahh

    This man has been sitting on death row for 20 years, what a waste of taxpayer money. This murderer must think he's a politican.

    September 21, 2011 at 7:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • evoc

      He didn't do it, he is an innocent person.

      September 21, 2011 at 7:13 pm | Report abuse |
  3. g.r.r.

    That is exactly what Terry Gilmore and Jolene Blair said about Tim Masters.
    Far too many ppl are recanting their testimony. Abort this and lets look into this.
    Otherwise, lets investigate it after the fact and if found innocent, then we get to hold the prosecutor for murder.
    Seriously, we have laws that block that, but I think that we should change that.
    When it allows the like of Terry Gilmore and Jolene Blair to do what they did without ANY repercussions, something is really wrong.

    September 21, 2011 at 7:09 pm | Report abuse |
  4. It's almost 7!

    He was found guilty, kill him.
    We as a country need to stop being such PU$$Y$. If you kill someone, you should be put to death, and quickly.
    It took way to long for this guy to pay for what he was found guilty of. It costs alot of money to keep these people alive for the whole point of eventually dying anyway. Let's speed up the process and kill more of these low life prisoners quicker, so we can put the money where it belongs, in places like schools.

    See ya!

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

      I AGREE IT TAKES WAY TO LONG FOR EXECUTIONS TO GO THROUGH...BUT MAKE SURE ITS THE RIGHT PERSON, POINT BLANK NOTHING MORE NOTHING LESS!!!

      September 21, 2011 at 7:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sharp shooter

      You are what you eat.

      September 21, 2011 at 7:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Doresearch

      God yall need to do ur research. Do u know how much money it costs the state to execute someone? And when exactly is enough time to make sure the person committed the murder? What if u kill him and tomorrow new evidence was found prooving him 100% innocent?

      September 21, 2011 at 7:24 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Anonymous

    Expect Us.

    September 21, 2011 at 7:10 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Yaj T

    ONLY IN AMERICA CAN A BLACK MAN BE PUT TO DEATH WITH NO EVIDENCE AND AS FAR AS IM CONCERNED, NO WITNESSES. IF 7 OUT OF THE 9 RECANTED, I WILL BET MY LIFE THAT THE LAST TO WERE COHORT AS JUST DON'T WANT TO ADMIT IT. WHEN IT COMES TO A WHITE MAN BEING KILLED SOMEBODY HAS TO PAY AND ITS USUALLY A BLACK MAN! I BELIEVE IN THE DEATH PENALTY, EYE FOR AN EYE....I WOULDN'T CARE IF IN FACT IT WAS A BLACK MAN WHO HAD KILLED THE OFFICER, JUST MAKE SURE, WITHOUT A SHADOW OF A DOUBT, THAT THE RIGHT PERSON WILL BE PUT 6 FEET UNDER, FOR A CRIME HE COMMITTED-THAT WOULD BE JUSTICE!!!!

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

      To be clear, the cop was moonlighting ( off duty) as a security guard when this occurred.

      September 21, 2011 at 7:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • SciGrrl

      Stop shouting.

      September 21, 2011 at 7:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Michigan_Joe

      This man was convicted by a jury comprised of 7 black and 5 whites. The panel of judges upholding the law consisted of 2 black and 2 whites. Don't call this a racist issue. Something stinks about 7 recanted statements after all these years. These are the people that should be charged with perjury. You can say that enough appeals have to stand as a further cause for upholding the law and sentence.

      September 21, 2011 at 7:42 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Bubba

    The problem is DNA has exonerated many people in cases where the Prosecutor has sworn that they were sure the person was guilty. The Death Sentence should not be allowed in any cases where there is not conclusive DNA evidence. Eye witnesses have proven over and over to be biased and unreliable if not down right dishonest. Prosecutors care more about winning cases than they do the actual innocence or guilt of a person.

    September 21, 2011 at 7:12 pm | Report abuse |
  8. tcaud

    The "Coles did it" story makes sense. I don't really see this guy shooting anybody. If this execution goes through... well first of all, executions should be reserved for psychopaths. Period. Otherwise, it should be off the table.

    September 21, 2011 at 7:12 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Jeremy

    I know there are other issues afoot, but I am curious as to when CNN will learn how to use an apostrophe in the possessive singular.

    September 21, 2011 at 7:14 pm | Report abuse |
  10. spaaz5272

    He has had many years to make peace with his maker. I am not convinced he killed the police officer, however, he did shoot a person in the face who survived and did pistol whip another which was proven without a doubt in previous convictions. Bottom line is that he has been proven in past offenses to be capable of cold blooded murder. I want him to make peace with his maker and I pray for him.

    September 21, 2011 at 7:16 pm | Report abuse |
  11. mthompson

    News flash... prosecutor doesn't want to admit he may have been wrong. It's not like someones life is depending on it... oh wait.

    September 21, 2011 at 7:20 pm | Report abuse |
  12. The Dude

    Yeah, no doubt, just like the Cop who sent the Memphis three up the river.

    September 21, 2011 at 7:26 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Frank

    Innocent people have been put to death in the past by the state. The death penalty is immoral since there is no guarantee of guilt and an innocent person can be put to death. I do not know if Davis is guilty or not, only he and the Creator know, and we will never know for sure.

    September 21, 2011 at 7:28 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Spaz

    I'd like to see Mr. Prosecutor put his life where his mouth is. If Davis is executed and later found to be innocent, I would demand that Mr Lawton be charged with a capital murder crime.

    September 21, 2011 at 7:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ed

      Agree...these killings will continue until the people making the decision to carry them out are held criminally responsible as they should. If at some time they are – they will immediately be for abolishing the death penalty. A lot of these people are allowing these killings to go forward simply for the sake of protecting their careers and not having to admit they were wrong.

      September 21, 2011 at 7:39 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Nitalynn

    Funny, nobody is saying who is recanting and exactly what they originally said and what they are saying now.

    September 21, 2011 at 7:30 pm | Report abuse |
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