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. Laurie209

    You will look long and hard to hear a prosecutor admit when they are wrong. It just isn't done. It's an ego thing and a feather in the cap as to how many cases won. Proof means nothing.

    September 21, 2011 at 11:52 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Jns6136

    To those of you who think that any of this is racially motivated here is part of another execution that happened earlier this evening in Texas. If a state has the death penalty you will have that chance to be executed if you commit murder, whether it is a cop or anyone else:
    - Lawrence Russell Brewer was executed in Texas Wednesday evening for his involvement in the infamous dragging death of a black man 13 years ago.

    Brewer, 44, was one of three men convicted for involvement in the murder of James Byrd.

    He was executed by lethal injection at 6:21 p.m. local time (7:21 p.m. ET) Wednesday , according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

    September 21, 2011 at 11:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • MagnoliasAndMolotovs

      The difference is that Brewer was caught with evidence, including blood on his truck, eyewitnesses that were NOT coerced, but who called him in and he even confessed.

      Sorry, differences abound here. Besides, TX would execute a kumquat if they thought it would make Perry look good.

      September 22, 2011 at 12:09 am | Report abuse |
    • Jns6136

      I really do not think that anyone has ALL of the facts of this case. The media and the right people know how to spin things. I for one would like to see the orginal transcripts to this case. It is amazing to me with the open records law that the full transcripts have not been brought to light. Why are they not being reported for either side?

      September 22, 2011 at 12:56 am | Report abuse |
  3. Marcus

    Careful not to be critical in any way of the system, whether we're talking about financial markets, corporate power, or the sham justice on display tonight. CNN is so full of crap. An innocent man was murdered tonight and CNN plays the part of bootlicker.

    September 21, 2011 at 11:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Beefburger

      Ah! Ok, you KNOW he was innocent. Then where the hell were you with the evidence and/or witness statement this whole time?

      September 22, 2011 at 1:17 am | Report abuse |
    • Lightfusion

      and you KNOW he was guilty? only 2 witnesses have not recanted their testimony and one came out and said she was threatened by the real murderer not to talk! We must convict beyond a reasonable doubt? Come on. No physical evidence. The prosecution is too proud to admit their mistake and killed a man that "might" have murdered a person....

      September 22, 2011 at 2:02 am | Report abuse |
    • Jay

      True. But I think our criticisms of corporate power should be given more voice. We're in the wrong forumm for that I'm afraid. These are the people who make a presidential debate look like a sporting event....not exactly concerned with the merits of cases like these, just that we're watching. This is a rare case of tolerating cable news for me.

      September 22, 2011 at 2:15 am | Report abuse |
    • scott

      Prosecutors were soooo sure the West Memphis 3 were guilty.....When cops pick out a suspect before they even analyze any evidence, these kinds of things happen. Its utterly disgusting that these people would rather put a man to death than admit they might have made a mistake. I won't claim he was innocent but surely the amount doubt surrounding this case should have at a minimum been enough to commute his sentence to life in prison. He should have gotten the chance at a new trial. 7 of 9 witnesses recant??!!! LIKE ARE YOU KIDDING ME GEORGIA? I'm ashamed to call myself an American today.

      September 22, 2011 at 2:44 am | Report abuse |
  4. MertonPrice

    This Davis was up to no good that night, going out and making trouble even before the cop died. This is not a case of a homely bookworm being railroaded. This guy was a bad egg, and they said he shot somebody in a car that night. If he was so innocent why were supporters saying just jail him for life. ps I'm liberal.

    September 21, 2011 at 11:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • hillman

      of couse there gonna say he shot another person that they neede sumone to blame for the crime and it was him it was probably a lil rich kid that nite out wit his friends causing trouble and ende up shooting and killing an off duty police officer in the process it happens all the time is the reason why none of the politicians have a criminal record let me tell you alot of skelatens in them there crooked politicians closets

      September 22, 2011 at 12:07 am | Report abuse |
    • Jay

      I don't think we should make any judgements on the case, the only thing that is enough to merit this execution being put on hold is simply the sheer amount of doubt and uncertainty that's come up.....even if he's guilty, this is troubling still. A sad day for America.

      September 22, 2011 at 2:17 am | Report abuse |
  5. sparknut

    No justice in this. Only shame.

    September 22, 2011 at 12:06 am | Report abuse |
  6. j

    Nah-nah nah-nah...
    Nah-nah nah-nah...
    Hay hay hay.. Goodbye.

    September 22, 2011 at 12:18 am | Report abuse |
  7. srkonbeast

    The way we deal with this is as follows: if Davis is later determined to be innocent, this prosecutor will immediately be arrested and then executed within 24 hours.

    September 22, 2011 at 12:38 am | Report abuse |
    • peggy

      Fair enough

      September 22, 2011 at 1:54 am | Report abuse |
    • Jay

      Then there's geniuses like this who don't help anything but prove there's plenty of dumb to go around.

      September 22, 2011 at 2:18 am | Report abuse |
  8. Svenni

    I hope Spencer Lawton will rot in Hell.That's where he belongs.

    September 22, 2011 at 12:54 am | Report abuse |
  9. Dino

    I like cream cheese and apple sauce.

    September 22, 2011 at 12:58 am | Report abuse |
    • logikflux

      That sir, is the most disturbing thing I have read on this board.

      September 22, 2011 at 1:15 am | Report abuse |
    • Jay

      I second that motion. Who wants ice cream?

      September 22, 2011 at 2:19 am | Report abuse |
  10. Marc

    The only person who could tell us is dead. That's it.

    September 22, 2011 at 1:05 am | Report abuse |
  11. madhvi kumar

    Spencer Lawton and MacPhail family are big whor** they just want to release their anger and fustration on someone so that they can get peace. Racism still exists in the US today and that could one of the reason for the crime of premeditated malice committed against Troy Davis. If solid evidence popped up in the coming future proving troy's innocence the prosecutor and judges that did not commute his death sentenced should all be sentenced to death and be trialed in open ground in the front of the public and be hanged to death rather than lethal injection.

    September 22, 2011 at 1:08 am | Report abuse |
  12. Integrity777

    My heart and prayers go out to the Police officer's family, and Mr.Troy Davis' family. To the racist commenters on here: LET GO! and LET GOD! I love you~

    September 22, 2011 at 1:30 am | Report abuse |
  13. Commonsense

    This guy was guilty as hell – good riddance – he should have been executed a long time ago so we didn't have to pay for his ass sitting in prison. When countless judges look at the case and find no reasonable doubt about the facts and proceedings – it's pretty evident this guy was properly convicted.

    September 22, 2011 at 1:48 am | Report abuse |
  14. CDSJr

    I would hope with all of my being that resources will be dedicated to a much deserved "Wrongful Death" suit towards the prosecutors in the Troy Davis case. "to late for admission of evidence" by the prosecutors... What is that? there is no statute of limitations on criminal prosecution. Why is there limitations on evidence that potentially proves innocence? It is both illogical and immoral.

    September 22, 2011 at 2:09 am | Report abuse |
  15. Jay

    If there is any doubt whatsoever, this isn't justice. ... he should be given life without parole....why not? With so much doubt......this is awful.

    September 22, 2011 at 2:11 am | Report abuse |
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