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. scott

    Prosecutors were also positive the West Memphis 3 were guilty.....shows how objective they are...not....

    September 22, 2011 at 2:34 am | Report abuse |
  2. Chuck

    I have one question for Lawton: If at some point in the future decades of remorse causes another person to come forward, confess to the crime, and if he is prosecuted and convicted for the MacPhail murder, at that point are you willing to surrender yourself to the State of Georgia for execution, having murdered an innocent man? If not, then you have no business prosecuting death cases. Any prosecutor found responsible for causing the death of an an innocent person should be executed, and if you aren't willing to live with that risk then you shouldn't be killing people.

    September 22, 2011 at 2:34 am | Report abuse |
  3. Samm

    Mr. Davis had over twenty years to prove his innocence, each and every time he was found guilty. Get over it, NEXT......

    September 22, 2011 at 2:46 am | Report abuse |
    • JEM

      OJ was innocent.
      His son Jason did the murders.
      Google "OJ Guilty but not of Murder"

      Our national justice system is a tragic embarrassment.

      September 22, 2011 at 3:47 am | Report abuse |
    • Johan S

      Uh, no he shouldn't have to prove his innocence, the state has to prove his guilt. The witnesses admit they lied, and the state doesn't have the murder weapon. All the key witnesses recanted and said they were coerced into testifying against him. No witnesses, flimsy physical evidence. They have no proof it was him, they can't prove he carried out the shootings. It could have been you for all we know.

      September 22, 2011 at 4:23 am | Report abuse |
    • Alvin

      You don't have long before judgement day and yougon wish it was that easy for you. Read your bible

      September 22, 2011 at 5:31 am | Report abuse |
    • Tmoney

      I say an eye for an more of these lenghty appeals. Its time to stop footing the bill for the bill for these criminals. We can't fund education but we can provide 3 meals, and a roof for murders etc...Kill em all!

      September 22, 2011 at 6:11 am | Report abuse |
    • IWANTajobnow

      it is funny how they could match up xyz with the Anthony case yet NOT convict her but had no absolute murder weapon here either and all kinds of doubt yet this man was convicted? We do not select a jury of the defendents peers but who the lawyers will think will win their case.

      September 22, 2011 at 6:35 am | Report abuse |
    • Jeff

      How could Georgia have killed an innocent man. I thought a person was presumed innocent until found guilty in a court of law by a jury of his peers? It seems to me this happened (including appeals) and therefore, no one can claim the man was can't have it both ways...slimy lawyers. Our society is where it is because of enabling apologist bleeding hearts. I can tell you that in 50 years, I have never been in a position to even begin to be mistaken as a shooter in a murder........people need to learn how to do isn't rocket science.

      September 22, 2011 at 7:51 am | Report abuse |
    • Wynand Winterbach

      In what way does the timespan enter into this? People have been exonerated long after being executed before.

      Capital punishment is a barbaric act that does not belong in a civilized nation.

      September 22, 2011 at 8:40 am | Report abuse |
  4. alfonso moore

    there,s always a doubt unless you were there to see it.

    September 22, 2011 at 3:39 am | Report abuse |
    • JomoDaMusicMan


      September 22, 2011 at 7:20 am | Report abuse |
  5. vampire weekend

    ...and casey anthony walks around free another day

    September 22, 2011 at 4:11 am | Report abuse |
  6. Alvin

    Dying is easy. On judgement day, everyone who thinks this was justice will want to die, but God won't allow it. Eternal torture. God word will not change nor come back void. hank you Jesus.

    September 22, 2011 at 5:28 am | Report abuse |
    • DrJStrangepork

      "Hank you Jesus" ? Calm down Alvin. I just read the article and neither God nor Jesus showed an opinion on it. That is evident by the Pope showing his. You can let them speak for themselves. Pretty sure that they don't need a chipmunk to do it.

      September 22, 2011 at 6:36 am | Report abuse |
    • Jeff

      Classical case of bible thumpers not even understanding the fiction that they swallow. As far as judgement goes, it is not god's (supposed) intention to stop people from judging others on civil, societal and moral basis but rather it is not your place to judge another in the eyes of the lord based upon his/her supposed teachings. Just another example of the extremes religious people will try to persecute, oppress and otherwise manipulate others by extending their beliefs/teachings beyond their intended scope. Alvni, you don't get it, stop proselytizing. You don't know Jack, let alone God (supposed).

      September 22, 2011 at 7:58 am | Report abuse |
  7. pay the price for your sin

    He paid the price, linked to the gun, linked to the murder, to bad, you play you pay, why should he sit and rot in jail on my tax dollars, just because he is black, to bad, you killed a cop and to bad it took 20 years, you were convicted, you should have fried then.

    September 22, 2011 at 5:39 am | Report abuse |
    • IWANTajobnow

      What gun they had no gun

      September 22, 2011 at 6:37 am | Report abuse |
    • Reality Check

      While they didn't find the gun the identical markings from a previous crime he committed were also found on the bullets of this crime.

      September 22, 2011 at 7:17 am | Report abuse |
    • Ben

      They spent more of your tax dollars going through the litigation of a death penalty than they would have had he sat 'rotting' in jail until he died of old age.

      September 22, 2011 at 9:20 am | Report abuse |
  8. realitychk

    Why in America do we stop looking for the real killers of these victims then? Casey,OJ, etc,,,,,because they're guilty! One less piece of garbage to support people. We tend to forget about the victims in all of these cases. Society is becoming a joke.

    September 22, 2011 at 5:44 am | Report abuse |
    • Courtney in Florida

      I think people like you can't see the truth because your so blood thirsty. I believe Troy Davis is innocent and I am a white person. America and the state of Georgia committed a sin last night and executed the wrong man. This case never directly linked Mr. Davis to the crime. May God bless Troy Davis and his family!

      September 22, 2011 at 6:52 am | Report abuse |
  9. jayman419

    Lawton raised many good points. The last seven sentences are the most reasoned, impartial discourse I've ever heard on the topic.

    September 22, 2011 at 6:07 am | Report abuse |
  10. DrJStrangepork

    The trouble here is trust. I don't trust eye-witness testimony in a death penalty case. There is more evidence this guy committed the crime than anybody else. We know the crime was committed. Thus, this is probably the guy, but "probably" and death penalty are not comfortable together. We have to feel good about doing this or we are the bad guys, right?

    September 22, 2011 at 6:44 am | Report abuse |
  11. John

    If he was consistently convicted by a jury of guilt. Then why are we even talking about this? Yes, if the conviction was in questioned. Then the people saying he is Not guilty must prove it. Obviously they did not. You will always have family and friends saying this person is innocent. That does not mean all the evidence is wrong.

    September 22, 2011 at 6:56 am | Report abuse |
  12. M

    Casey Anthony ... and others like her ... will get theirs in due time.

    I won in court, too ... and haven't been able to receive the monies due me - now 27 years since the court decree.

    Don't bring your religion into the wrongs of people in the world ... enough damage has occurred because of religion – and that continues daily. Swearing on the bible is no guarantee of the truth - the bible is full of nonsense that still can't be figured out or agreed upon. Too many religions murder people who refuse to convert.

    September 22, 2011 at 7:02 am | Report abuse |
  13. al

    He shot someone else before the cop was shot, so either way he got what was coming to him. He wasn't some random black man pulled out of a lineup he was a criminal plain and simple. If this is about the death penalty itself that's a different story, but this man was not "innocent"

    September 22, 2011 at 7:07 am | Report abuse |
    • awomansc

      He was never charged with the other shooting, cause they didn't have a weapon there either. So what does that tell you. Since there was so many witnesses, where did the gun go. Wake up

      September 22, 2011 at 11:13 am | Report abuse |
  14. tanya

    To prosecuter Lawton: When your time come to meet god on your day, you "will" be judged on judgment day according to your actions...he's not going to favor you whether you are black or white. I pray that god deals with you justly. I guarantee you this! So do what you want now.... but there is no escaping gods rath come judgment day!!

    September 22, 2011 at 7:21 am | Report abuse |
  15. J.T.M.

    Well the deed is done. I do believe that the police will do there best to be sure that they have the proper person, and as a "norm" they do. There is alot that goes into this that we don't get to see and for the most we don't want to see it. Now I sure hope that they got it right because there is no going back.

    September 22, 2011 at 7:27 am | Report abuse |
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