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. Par For The South

    Black enough to be innocent.

    September 21, 2011 at 8:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • mimi123

      Par for the North to sit in the ivory tower with a blindfold on.....and do not even try to tell me it never happens up you way Mr. Snooty Pants.

      September 21, 2011 at 8:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Popcorn Papa

      Let me get this straight, you're suggesting he's getting preferential treatment in the South because he's black? If you look in your rearview you'll notice you passed Crazytown a long time ago.

      September 21, 2011 at 8:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sunshine$$

      If the prosecutor was wrong, do you think he would say it...yeah right.. He would never say I have doubt ... in his heart because he work for the state... WOW...Let's keep it real

      September 21, 2011 at 8:55 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Tom

    Not to buffoons like Jimmy Carter

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

    Not according to the conviction...and how much empathy can you have for someone who has admitted to beating up a homeless guy and shot someone earlier the same night?

    September 21, 2011 at 8:04 pm | Report abuse |
  4. mimi123

    It is amazing that the people that commented against the death penalty were silent in the case of the execution in Texas today.

    September 21, 2011 at 8:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Scott

      Reverse discrimination rears it's ugly head yet again. Do you think this would be getting any press if Davis was white? And you have Anti-Semites like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton leading the cause to free him. Nobody is disputing the fact that this thug shot someone earlier the same day or participated in beating up some homeless guy. This guy is worth the support of these protesters?

      September 21, 2011 at 8:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • KellyinBoston

      The case is distinguishable from the execution in Texas, since this man was convicted based on testimony that was later recanted in the case of 7 of 9 witnesses. That's a pretty suspect conviction.

      September 21, 2011 at 8:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tina Leigh

      There is no doubt about what happened in Texas. With Troy Davis there is a good change he is an innocent man. I think sometimes the death penalty is appropriate. BUT if it means there is chance an innocent person could be killed it is not worth it. The state of Georgia is about to commit murder.

      September 21, 2011 at 8:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • JamesTN


      I have some news for you...anytime the death penalty is administered it's murder. That's whether the person is innocent (which has ocurred dozens of times that we know of), or not. On the death certificate, in every state, the attending doctor writes "homicide" in the space indicating "cause of death." Your comment confirms what I've studied for quite some time, in that many, if not most, people do not consider the death penalty to be a "murder," when of course, it clearly is. I wonder if that it is to unconsciouly distance ourselves from these heinous acts, guised as virtuous in retribution for more heinous acts.

      September 21, 2011 at 8:38 pm | Report abuse |
  5. M

    A jury convicted the man. Get a grip. But then I would imagine that all of the people defending this guy because the media and celebrities got involved also voted for the Obamanation for the same reason, Bollywood makes the real decisions in America because most are too ignorant to make a decision on their own which is what the jury did.

    All this is is an attempt invalidate our entire judicial system and invoke left wing views on the death penalty using the media and Bollywood via sensationlism.

    September 21, 2011 at 8:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Boogie

      HEY...TWO of the 9 witnesses DIDN'T recant....and you only need ONE credible witness to convict.
      The other 7 either didn't see or don't want to feel responsible for this guy getting they recanted.
      But, not ALL of the witnesses if the protesters are wrong???...wouldn't you feel like suckers!!!

      September 21, 2011 at 8:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • Brian

      You don't know what "Bollywood" is, do you? Alas, I am a lifelong republican and I only support the death penalty when there is 0 doubt. Because testimonies were recanted, there is legal doubt about this conviction. You have no idea what it means to be a conservative. You are more of a fascist.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:00 pm | Report abuse |
  6. jslim

    also whats amazing is none of them care about killing babies before they are born either!

    September 21, 2011 at 8:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • JamesTN

      Once more, we have a GROSS misunderstanding of what's going on here. It doesn't matter if one of the nine recanted, all nine, or seven of nine. What matters is the standard of guilt in the U.S.: guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. So when does reasonable doubt set in? What this person is unwittingly doing is actually reinforcing that there actually may be reasonable doubt here, given the disparity in who is sticking to their story, and who isn't. It doesn't take the testimony of one person to convict anybody of anything. Is a fingerprint testimony? Clearly not. Moreover, what if those two people are disreputable, or mentally ill – do you actually get the point here?

      September 21, 2011 at 8:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • obi

      no, what's really amazing is that people pretend that they're pro-life but don't bat an eye when an innocent man is executed.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:40 pm | Report abuse |
  7. jslim

    i would ask why everyone seems to take an interest during the last week before anyones execution. why dont they get involved a year before.

    September 21, 2011 at 8:17 pm | Report abuse |
  8. JRBMN

    I agree with the prosecurtor, so you anti death sentence people knock yourself out. Here is the the real kicker, if this guy would have received life in prison, no one would have said anything. But because he received the death penalty people are up in arms. Not because they believe he is innocent or guilty, but because he received the death penalty. Even Carter said he should receive life in prison, not because he is innocent, but because Carter is against the death penalty. What a bunch of hipocrits you people are for getting this guy off. You don't even care whether he is innocent or guilty, you are just against the death penalty. If you are going to protest something, at least protest for what you believe in. You are just as bad as the people you criticize in this system.

    September 21, 2011 at 8:22 pm | Report abuse |
  9. char

    If he was white he would have been dead 10 years ago without a bat of a eye like the rest of the white people who were punished for their crimes..

    September 21, 2011 at 8:26 pm | Report abuse |
  10. tom

    Happy are the merciful,since they will be shown mercy.

    September 21, 2011 at 8:28 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Paul Begala

    Just an FYI: Young black men, who make up only about 4% of the total population in America, are responsible for over 50% of all of the murders committed in America.

    Did you get that? A tiny portion of the population commits over half of all of the homicides !!!!!

    Is it any wonder property values plunge when blacks move into an area? Is it any wonder you see white flight when blacks move into an area?

    There is a reason Africa is Africa...and there is a reason America's prisons are filled with black men. Are you able to connect the dots?

    September 21, 2011 at 8:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • SDeeTee

      Site your source, Paul.

      September 21, 2011 at 8:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • CommonSense

      I've lived in multi-cultural neighborhoods for 20+ years and we all get along or handle our differences in a civil manner. The only places I know that have experienced "white flight" are the neighborhoods filled with racist bigots too afraid to live around yellows, reds, browns and blacks.

      September 21, 2011 at 8:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • jremo

      that is so racist and hateful. take a better look at your facts caucasian men are responsible for more than 505 of crimes in America. Get your racist ass off this tread.

      September 21, 2011 at 8:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • jremo

      meant 50% stupid shift key

      September 21, 2011 at 8:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Merry


      September 21, 2011 at 10:08 pm | Report abuse |
  12. EddyL

    LIES. Zero evidence and 7 recating witnesses.... GET A BRAIN.

    September 21, 2011 at 8:31 pm | Report abuse |
  13. BOB

    Was any pro lifers in Georgia helping to stand against the possibility of an innocence human being being put to death. HYPOCRITS

    September 21, 2011 at 8:52 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Craig

    Death penalty is tough, how does killing someone differ from the person you are killing, killing someone. Death penalty is an oxymoron, you are killing someone for killing someone. We should not choose who lives or dies, prison for the rest of their life should be the max penalty.

    September 21, 2011 at 8:52 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Majnoon

    I am not sure if he is guilty or innocent but there had been many instances that the prosecution rushed to judgement and convicted a wrong person, so he/ she looks good in the public view. Case point, the convictions of three young men in Memphis recently. They were released after years behind bars for killing of boys that they never did and no matter how many times, they said there were innocent, some Judge and Prosector said the same thing, " No, you are guilty."
    There are more and more cases that have been proven totally mismanaged and there will be more people freed. I just hope that justice will be done to those cops, prosecutors who convicted the innocents to look good.

    September 21, 2011 at 8:55 pm | Report abuse |
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