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. Horrus

    Feral dog is down. Great news for good people!

    September 22, 2011 at 7:36 am | Report abuse |
  2. pedals

    Lawton reminds me of another prosecutor Tommy Pope. These men can never accept doubt or innocence.....why...their reputation is destroyed..they are weak...their power will have disappeared...they won't get the position as a judge..how many prosecutors have said they are sorry they imprisoned an innocent man?

    September 22, 2011 at 9:00 am | Report abuse |
  3. jeff

    Unless Pres Jimmy Carter personally handled the bullet casing from the pool party and conducted the ballistics on them and had custody of both sets of casing and took them to court and revealed the results I wouldn't trust it. Cops can make anything seem plausible. Add the emotions of a slain comrad in the mix and they can turn cow crap into a gourmet dish.

    September 22, 2011 at 9:57 am | Report abuse |
    • James

      I so agree. Jesus! someone can think on the Internet.

      September 22, 2011 at 10:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jesse Norman

      Jimmy Carter is a boob who still thinks that Velezuelan leader Hugo Chauvez is still a democratically elected leader and president, not the communist dictator that he is. I wouldn't trust that man with a bowl of excrement, let alone evidence of a crime.

      September 22, 2011 at 11:12 pm | Report abuse |
  4. K R Smith

    Lonnie – expect two calls: one from the Secret Service for making an indirect threat against the President; one from your 8th grade (and last) English teacher.

    September 22, 2011 at 10:31 am | Report abuse |
    • InTheSlammer

      He is a racist fool as his post suggest.

      September 22, 2011 at 5:27 pm | Report abuse |
  5. helen

    Admitting I am relying on the media but of the 9 witnesses two remain steadfast. One witness is enough, at least in California. I am opposed to the DP btw. I have to hope that greater legal minds did what they could in reviewing the case. It is time for a change in the law.

    September 22, 2011 at 10:36 am | Report abuse |
  6. Shay Davis

    Lonnie tha remark as nothing to do with what the topic is. Take your comments elsewhere they are not needed here. Do you see that is bigger than a man being put to death. So much more. If I'm not mistaken the President is partly white!

    September 22, 2011 at 11:27 am | Report abuse |
  7. ChuckFromAL

    You are not only a racist, you are an illiterate fool. Did you go to school past the third grade?

    September 22, 2011 at 11:53 am | Report abuse |
  8. emajunthat

    Fool

    September 22, 2011 at 11:59 am | Report abuse |
  9. sad day in america's history.

    There should have been hard core evidence!!!! How can you take a life based on he said she said?

    September 22, 2011 at 1:47 pm | Report abuse |
  10. hangem high

    The holy see should shut his pie hole. That clown should stick with covering up child molesters in his church.

    September 22, 2011 at 2:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Matt

      Sounds like a personal problem that your old man used to tell you his ding a ling was a strawberry ice cream cone. Don't bring the Pope down because you were forced down on your dad.

      September 23, 2011 at 5:44 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Justin

    One less to pay for. Next.

    September 22, 2011 at 5:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      This person is completely ignorant..... Fool.... Dig a hole

      September 22, 2011 at 6:43 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Very Sad

    "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."

    Oh right, so this case was one by 'disciplined' thinking and not by facts? This country stands on for the people, by the people and if it wasnt because of 'public relations' this man wouldn't even have his job. As a public servant, you'd think he'd show more respect. But this kind of arrogance can only be displayed by someone who has never lived on the street. If anything he shouldn't talk, and just go back to his retirement home and let us decided. If the people dont want the death penalty, then the government has to adhere. As long as the people are for the death penalty, even he knows thats the only reason his job is so exciting. Its obvious he has no regrets, or remorse about someone being put to the death. That makes him just as bad as the murderers who actually die by the 'sword' in this case, the government

    September 22, 2011 at 7:06 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Brendan

    ...and people say Republicans don't understand satire. Oh well. It just shows how narrow-minded and uninformed liberals like emajunthat and ChuckFromAl are when they think THIS is what conservatives believe.

    Hint: Daily Show and Colbert Report =/= News. Sorry, guys!

    September 22, 2011 at 7:27 pm | Report abuse |
  14. James

    Brendan you are a moron as well as the original poster, what support do yo u have that these people you criticize are liberals and what is real news to you? Fox news i bet.

    September 22, 2011 at 10:01 pm | Report abuse |
  15. softnutz

    If you havent noticed cnn is always turning everything into a racial or gay stance like there trying to act like racism is real. You can always tell too cause youll see big fat rowlin martin running his mouth looking like an idiot. I dont know nothing about this guy. I think people shouldnt be put to death but have that option I rather be dead then rot in a hellhole

    September 23, 2011 at 5:22 am | Report abuse |
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