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. Randall

    Troy shoots a man at a party. dumps the gun. somebody finds the gun and kills a cop with it. is there any evidence to prove that ISNT what happened? why are we killing a guy when we can't even say for sure that he's guilty?

    September 21, 2011 at 8:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • B+

      Ask yourself one question, if the police officer Troy slaughtered was black, would you or anyone else on this board care about this case ? If you're honest, the answer is NO. The reason being that blacks are the biggest racist in this country and no one wants to address it.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • edka

      @B+ or if Troy would be white, they would not protest the execution. Blacks are racist

      September 21, 2011 at 9:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • racist

      Yeah us Blacks racist learn from the best! Thanks for our edumacation!

      September 21, 2011 at 9:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kiro Pora

      Amen my man.... Blacks are racist!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      September 21, 2011 at 9:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mark C

      Right, moron. That's why he was convicted by a jury made up mostly of blacks.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:58 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Harold

    There is a reason that things are done in an orderly fashion, rather than done on rumors and half-truths. Being pro- or anti-capital punishment does not change the fact that it is the law on the books. Why do we suddenly throw all the rule of law out the window because it becomes a PR campaign? The lawyers never really had any substantial defense, thus are semi-successfully using PR as their defense.

    September 21, 2011 at 8:58 pm | Report abuse |
  3. EngrScott

    Anyone who was not in the court room for the trial and didn't hear the evidence has nothing more than an uninformed opinion. The former D.A. is absolutely right when he says the media campaign is nothing more than mob justice. It is no different than if they were all campaigning for an acquitted person to be hung.

    September 21, 2011 at 9:04 pm | Report abuse |
  4. maybeajoke

    Is there any evidence that he dumps the gun?

    September 21, 2011 at 9:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mark C

      He's in jail, moron. He's not dumping anything. Why don't you go back to grade school and learn your verb tenses.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:59 pm | Report abuse |
  5. mocha moore

    sounds like a race issue to me

    September 21, 2011 at 9:12 pm | Report abuse |
  6. WOW

    no crap the prosecutor says he killed him without a doubt. he's the prosecutor. why is this even an article?

    September 21, 2011 at 9:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mark

      You nailed it.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:34 pm | Report abuse |
  7. TexasJustice

    “That's kind of cruel but that's reality.”
    "He had choices," she said Tuesday, referring to Davis. "He made the wrong choices."

    September 21, 2011 at 9:17 pm | Report abuse |
  8. yeltzin

    I think life in prison is a fate worse than death so I don't care, but something is fishy about the recants and I would be happy to hear those recanting take polygraph tests. A lot of blacks resent whts but hate wht cops, There is one thing that bothers me about the story. It has been stated that the same type shell casings were found at the murder scene and a previous shooting scene, but the casings are said to be .38 caliber. The problem here is that a .38 does not spit out the brass. It is a revolver cartridge (rimmed) whereas a semi-auto which extracts the spent round is a rimless cartridge. But then I'm sort of used to these reports where a semi auto is referred to as an automatic and other such inane claims. Now I know there is such a thing as a .38 Super but those are scarce as hens teeth but for some collectors and I'm certain it wasn't one of those.

    September 21, 2011 at 9:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chaiah

      I believe one of the two who have not recanted their stories is/was a suspect. He pointed at Davis'... Davis has offered to take a lie detector test but it was denied. I remember this case when it was tried and never thought Davis' was guilty. I was a police officer for several years (am also anti death penalty) and never want to see someone who kills a police officer go free. However, I want the right person(s) brought to justice and convicting and executing someone just to make us all feel good is not justice.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Reclaimer

      Why carry around an unloaded firearm? If he paused to reload at the first crime scene, not thinking to pick up his casings afterwards (something few criminals outside of crime novels stop to do), then wouldn't he do it at the second scene as well? Not everyone who shoots people is a Hollywood assassin.

      September 21, 2011 at 10:10 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Lexan

    Prosecutors rarely admit they have made a mistake. Even when everyone else knows it. Prosecutors would rather have an innocent person executed than to risk a black mark on their performance record.

    September 21, 2011 at 9:22 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Chaiah

    If this prosecutor has absolutely no doubts about Troy Davis' guilt, then the prosecutor is a fool.

    September 21, 2011 at 9:42 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Cdn Jim

    In the United States (the only "civilized" country that executes people, (like it's peers North Korea, Iran, Somalia, Afghanistan – great company you keep!) blacks and the poor are disproportionately executed compared to whites and the rich who commit the same crimes. The death penalty is also more expensive than keeping someone locked up in jail for the rest of their lives. I'm not saying set them free, I'm saying if you are a Republican, then you should be fighting this waste of money. Whiich you would if the people who suffer it most of the time weren't black and poor.

    September 21, 2011 at 9:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chaiah


      September 21, 2011 at 9:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • zman

      The Republican Jesus would execute him, the Liberal Jesus would not.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • chris

      "blacks and the poor are disproportionately executed compared to whites and the rich who commit the same crimes."

      Hooray for making broad, unsubstantiated claims.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:54 pm | Report abuse |
  12. zman

    The case obviously has some legal issues and they should be looked into.

    September 21, 2011 at 9:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • chris

      How many more times do you want them to look into it? The case has been appealed 3 times, and now the Supreme Court is reviewing it again.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:55 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Joe

    @obi: no what's really amazing is that people pretend to be pro life but don't bat an eye when an innocent unborn child is aborted but get all worked up when a murderer is scheduled for execution.

    September 21, 2011 at 9:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mark C

      Uh, actually, half-wit, nobody on left ever refers to themselves as "pro-life." That's the hypocrits on the right.

      September 21, 2011 at 10:00 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Devin

    Death or life in prison......who cares? This guy was already dangerous before the police officer was shot. Whether he dies or rots...I'll be doing just swell in life.

    September 21, 2011 at 9:56 pm | Report abuse |
  15. chris

    Read the entire 70-something page decision issued by the Southern District of Georgia in August 2010 before you make broad statements. Hell, you don't have to even read the whole thing, just certain parts, instead of getting your information from CNN and other media outlets who skew the decision.

    September 21, 2011 at 9:59 pm | Report abuse |
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