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. James

    I wasn't very convinced either way until I read the swarmy unconvincing self serving comments from this prosecutor.
    This is not a justified execution.
    William Sessions is not enough for you?
    Remember this day when you are on Jury duty.

    September 21, 2011 at 7:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • humberto

      If you have so much proof otherwise, how come it didn't happen, Neophyte ?

      September 21, 2011 at 7:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • trixie

      I believe the word you are looking for is 'smarmy'.

      September 21, 2011 at 8:07 pm | Report abuse |
  2. jnagain

    A prosecutor who put a man on death row now says he KNOWS the man is guilty? Shock, what are the odds?

    September 21, 2011 at 7:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • ShakinHead

      The odds are pretty good, given that all this so-called "doubt" is manufactured by anti-death-penalty advocates and Davis supporters. I don't blame the supporters–they are trying to save his life. But according to Georgia Law, written by duly-elected Georgia legislators, Davis lost his right to breathe oxygen. He has been stealing it for decades now.

      September 21, 2011 at 8:03 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Jon

    I hope this legalized killer sleeps like sh!t tonight and every night.

    September 21, 2011 at 7:34 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Greg

    Is there any dispute of the non-lethal shooting earlier that day? If not I think they need to hit the switches on this thug. How do like casings from ballistics tests show up at the site of the earlier shooting as well as this one that killed the off duty guy? Obviously if he did the first he did the second or he would have told somone what happened to the gun.

    September 21, 2011 at 7:35 pm | Report abuse |
  5. pasta

    prosecutor may have no doubt, but it surely seems to me (a somewhat reasonable person) that there is enough doubt to at least put this thing on hold.
    did you hear that... 7 of 9 recantation are not recantations the way the law would look at them???
    did you hear that... at least 2 do not touch testimony? What about the other 5???
    did you hear that... they were under oath at the time... so what about now, they are lying now???
    did you hear that... prosecutor is perfectly satisied???
    did you hear that... troy got a fair trial???
    did you hear that... troy got a fair outcome??????
    these statements (and his accent does not help) sound delusional, and so seems reality now.
    in dubio pro reo.
    i am troy davis.

    September 21, 2011 at 7:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • ShakinHead

      After this jerk gets his anti-crime vaccination, they need to go after the witnesses who recanted and jack their azzes up for perjury.

      September 21, 2011 at 8:05 pm | Report abuse |
  6. dr who

    Nite nite Troy.....burn.....burn....burn....

    September 21, 2011 at 7:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      Spoken like a true christian.

      September 21, 2011 at 7:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • john Montana

      No education, self hatred. Beats his wife. Probly drins too much. Get a life man

      September 21, 2011 at 7:56 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Scott

    Just want to make sure I understand what actually happened. Davis was part of a group of men who were beating up a defenseless homeless guy, right? And his supporters believe it was another member of this mob that shot the cop?

    September 21, 2011 at 7:41 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Veronica

    LET US STOP EXECUTING INNOCENT HUMAN BEINGS !!!

    IS THIS CASE PROVEN BEYOND THE REASONABLE DOUBT ???

    September 21, 2011 at 7:41 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Alberto

    This comment goes to prosecuter Spencer Lawton. Based on your personal opinion of Mr. Troy Davis" guilt does not give you the right or the authority to sentence this man to the death penalty. Mr. Davis is pleading for his life because he is innocent and would like a fair trial or an opportunity to prove his innocence. Even if Mr, Davis committed murder that doen't mean he diserves to die; we are not the givers of life so we shouln't be the takers of one. Mr. Davis deserves a chance in life like everyone does; we need to examine our heart and concience because this could be a wrong verdict and then another innocent man dies because someone decided there was nothing else to prove and the decision of the jury is the only one that counts. I think the death penalty should be taken out the system and just sentence the victim to life without possibility of parole if found guilty of charge. Also if a citizen has the right to vote he should have the right to appeal for a second trial. I want to enphasize that if a peace officer falls in the line of duty or off duty by the hands of a citizen, the same trial should be executed if a citizen falls in the hand of a peace officer wether by accident or negligence.

    September 21, 2011 at 7:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • freedom44

      Amen and cheers to the voices of compassion and reason.

      September 21, 2011 at 8:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tyler

      He's had a fair trial. Twenty years of a fair trial.

      September 21, 2011 at 8:03 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Scott

    "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."

    So this guy was convicted of a non-fatal shooting earlier in the same evening and some are trying to say the bullets were put in the wrong evidence bag? So he shot someone else (who didn't die) and people call this guy innocent?

    September 21, 2011 at 7:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      Innocent of murder.

      September 21, 2011 at 7:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Leslie

      Having lived in Georgia, a witness to the BLANTANT racism I would STRONGLY doubt anything they police, sheriffs or prosecutors have to say. While I don't have all the facts of the case the chain of evidence has been compromised with that fact alone there are LEGAL grounds to throw out the conviction and retry the case IF evidence is if found.

      While I am so sorry for the life lost there is no way you can make up for it I'm also sorry for the "tricks" to pin murder on someone who may be inocennt...all I ask is before you judge put yourself or a family member in that position and then make educated remarks.

      September 21, 2011 at 8:05 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Armand

    I'm not sure about the facts of the case, but its appalling to see that the death penalty was even considered with so much doubt on the table. Never-mind the fact that his execution has been stayed on three prior occasions, the fact that witnesses have recanted and even come forward and said they were threatened into testifying should be enough for a a successful appeal. I think the police community just wants to take a life for one of theirs that was taken.....and two wrongs never make a right, just a cycle of wrong doing.

    September 21, 2011 at 8:01 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Lee Ashworth

    What a farce. First of all, I would not put any credability in any statement made by the prosecutor. The fact that so many witnesses have recanted their testimony is grounds enough not to continue with this MURDER. And some pretty high up there folks certainly agree. What is wrong with these people in Georgia??? Do they just want to get it done so they don't have to deal with it anymore (the easy way). I know it's no big deal to Georgia, but this is one state that me and my family will certainly avoid when it comes to vacation.

    September 21, 2011 at 8:02 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Tyler

    This man has had 20 years to prove he is innocent and has not been able to. Why? because he is guilty. GA needs to just go ahead and execute the murderer for what he did. TX already carried out one execution tonight. GA needs to hurry up and follow suit.

    September 21, 2011 at 8:02 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Dr. John P. Dwyer

    Mr. Lawton, like all the other prosecutors I know, thinks he knows the whole scene as it happened 20 years ago. But when he says, "When it's in a court, you get disciplined thinking. We've won every time the thinking has been disciplined" he's dead wrong. The jury gets to hear only what the judge and the attorneys want them to hear and are told to ignore evidence. This may be disciplined thinking to a military mind, but it certainly is wrong to not consider evidence and scorn public reaction.

    September 21, 2011 at 8:02 pm | Report abuse |
  15. tybee

    Why is no one mentioning that this man was convicted of not 1 but 2 murders???2 innocent people died because of this man

    September 21, 2011 at 8:03 pm | Report abuse |
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