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. Willy Brown

    This Troy Davis shot another person earlier that night why are they not demonstrating for his innocence’s on this too? Hmmmmm.

    September 20, 2011 at 11:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • TWD

      Since he admitted to the first, why not admit to the second...hmmm? Also, the man he said was the real shooter (Coles) is also the man who the seven other witnesses identified, including Coles' family members who say he (Coles) confessed. The witness who died gave a deathbed testimony that the man who argued with the homeless man was the shooter, evidence that was matched the seven recanting witnesses. The problem the police and prosecution had was that their star witness was being id'd as the shooter thereby making them look incompetent. Davis was absolutely wrong for shooting the other man and if that were the crime he was being executed over there probably wouldn't be the immense public outcry. Since when is it acceptable to kill people for crimes they didn't commit and let them go free for the ones they do?

      September 21, 2011 at 12:19 am | Report abuse |
    • Jean Sartre, WI

      Perhaps, Willie Brown, because it was the same jury, and, more IMPORTANTLY, because killing a cop in GEORGIA carries with it the DEATH PENALTY... Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm...IDIOT!

      September 21, 2011 at 4:15 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Fred

    Amazing all of you people who take sides without "really" knowing all of the facts. He was tried and found guilty. Sorry, but after the final appeal, it's time for justice to be done.

    September 20, 2011 at 11:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lord Vader

      Sounds like you are taking sides yourself too while criticizing others......

      September 20, 2011 at 11:13 pm | Report abuse |
  3. William Blackstone

    Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer. The Blackstone ratio has been abandoned in this case as has the intent of founding father's Franklin, Madison, Jefferson and Hamilton, not that anybody cares what those guys thought anymore. This is a post 9/11 world is what I hear every time we forgive ourselves for an injustice. I know I'm the blame America first crowd right? I'll accept my label if you'll define exactly what the American justice system is based upon since we've pulled the Blackstone ratio out from under our founding fathers. What is this form of justice you keep?

    September 20, 2011 at 11:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • paulm5545

      Jean, you are really in need of medication. I mean REALLY in need.

      September 21, 2011 at 9:15 pm | Report abuse |
  4. No sympathy from me

    I really have no sympathy for someone who was convicted of shooting a cop. (Even though it was nonfatal) He had been tried for two cases. 1st case, shooting a cop that resulted as a nonfatal shooting. 2nd case, this case being talked about where the cop died.
    Too bad there is no death penalty for attempted murder. If the cop he shot (who did not die) happened to have died, this would be a non issue.

    September 20, 2011 at 11:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jean Sartre, WI

      I have nothing but sympathy for cop killers; I really wish there were more of them...

      I have been involved in far too many court hearing where cops lie and lie and lie and force vulnerable people into lying for them; it is disgraceful and a lot more common than you want to know or admit.

      Maybe, but I'm being idealistic here, if more cops were killed, they would ALL get the message that their role in society is to PROTECT AND TO SERVE!

      September 21, 2011 at 4:23 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Bennett

    The prosecutors' blindness, in part to help them sleep at night, is incredibly logical. But, it is equally logical to consider the possibility that the recanted eye witness testimony was wrong, and therefor, if that is true, then Georgia is about to kill an innocent man. There is considerable historical precedent for filling innocent people – happens on all the time. But in such a case where it cannot be determined 100% by the evidence, even if you believe in State sanctioned 'eye-for-eye' murder, then this killing of the accused can only confirm to this writer that I do not yet live in a society that is civilized. Oh well. Same as it ever was.

    September 20, 2011 at 11:09 pm | Report abuse |
  6. JusticeforMcPhailsFamily

    Yeah.....I bet he wishes he had not killed that white officer now. I wonder if he will pick his meal now. How bout some BURGER KING burgers, killer! And.......we can throw in some doughnuts since you seem to like cops enough to shoot them in the face. I wonder what made these witnesses recant. Do they think killing a white officer is payback for years past? I feel this is about race. For the above mentioned "I won't buy anything from Georgia......who cares?" Capital punishment deters violent least that's what the data thing says.

    September 20, 2011 at 11:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lord Vader

      Its obvious you care because you pointed out my post..... Logic?

      September 20, 2011 at 11:14 pm | Report abuse |
  7. SayWhat??

    Quote from Spencer Lawton:
    "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.

    Firstly, what evidence if any, exists to substantiate that the affadavits recanting the initial testimony were obtained under duress?

    Secondly, is the prosecutor conceding that duress was applied by police to get the witness testimony in the first place? If not, how else does he know how much duress was applied (to make a comparison with the duress he's saying was used to get the recanting affidavits)? Strange that he would say that to say the least – sounds like a bit of a slipup.

    September 20, 2011 at 11:10 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Dana

    I believe that every human has a right to continue to fight for their innocence. They had gun casings found at 2 different crime scenes, but no weapon. This is the only "physical" evidence talked about. I would love to read the transcripts and see the evidence presented and accepted in the trial. In our day and age the media sensationalize any crime they think will give them ratings. The justice system is the place for proper judging. The media tends to get things wrong quite a bit. They tend to crucify someone without all the facts.

    September 20, 2011 at 11:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • mary wilson

      now thats right

      September 20, 2011 at 11:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jean Sartre, WI

      NO ONE ever has ALL THE FACTS!

      September 21, 2011 at 4:27 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Saint Genesius

    Has there ever been a case where the prosecutor was not absolutely convinced of the guilt of the defendant in a capital case? I've never heard of that happening –I've never heard of a prosecutor saying, " well, I'm preeeeetty sure he did it, but I could be wrong –but I think he did is."

    But over the years there have been literally dozens of cases where people have been exonerated while on death row preparing to be executed by the state. And in all those cases, the prosecutor was sure, right up until the last moment.

    There is reasonable doubt in this case, I believe. Just putting the shells into the same evidence bag would be a big red flag for me if I was on the jury.

    At the very least, Davis should get a new trial.

    September 20, 2011 at 11:11 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Tamm

    What about that Cleve Foster, that former army recruiter - saved from execution for the third time - would being white have anything to do with it? [I'm white, too]

    September 20, 2011 at 11:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jean Sartre, WI

      Well, there you go Tamm, WHITE IS RIGHT!

      September 21, 2011 at 4:30 pm | Report abuse |
  11. clinky

    You have to wonder, what does it take? One of the witnesses was reported to have bragged about killing MacPhail later that night. I'm pretty sure one of the other witnesses was a cop. If that's true, ALL of the witnesses we can say for sure are non-interested recanted!

    I live too far away to go but I sure hope thousands of people turn up for a protest vigil in Jackson, Georgia.

    Why is the parole board so sure it's been right all along, anyway? There are diverse and prestigious international bodies and individuals questioning and opposing this sentence. Why isn't the board listening to them? Why do Americans keep getting in a corner saying they know better than everyone else?

    September 20, 2011 at 11:12 pm | Report abuse |
  12. mary wilson

    without evidence you should not put a person to death so that makes your justice system wrong to just kill him like that and u dont even have evidence i say he shall live

    September 20, 2011 at 11:13 pm | Report abuse |
  13. GaryB

    The most troubling thing about this case is the fact that of the only two "eyewitnesses" that haven't recanted, one was the alternate suspect in the crime and the other originally told police (and this is part of the police record) that he couldn't identify the shooter. If the prosecution had to go to trial with those two and generic shell casings as their only evidence, there is little doubt that they would lose the case today. Unfortunately for Davis, in our legal system, once convicted, the burden of proof falls on the accused.

    September 20, 2011 at 11:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • clinky

      GaryB, Thanks for that clarification about the second non-recanting witness. This case looks more threadbare all the time. It is appallingly primitive to put Davis to death with so little to go on, and especially with a long and continuing pattern of racism in Southern criminal courts. I feel pretty ashamed to be an American right now. I love my country, but this is an awful mistake that repeats the racism of our country's history.

      September 20, 2011 at 11:33 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Moonbeam

    I wonder if he has ever taken a private polygraph. One can have a polygraph administered privately and not release the results to law enforcement if one fails the test. On the other hand, couldn't results be released publicly if one passes the test, and thus create considerable doubt of guilt in a public forum? If I were an innocent person falsely accused, the first thing I would want is a polygraph done privately and then release the results to the press. For instance, if I were Michael Jackson accused of molestation, that's what I would have done (if I was innocent). It would have been almost impossible to find 12 jurors to convict after that. Just like it would not be a public relations nightmare for prosecutors and the governor of Georgia if private polygraph results showing innocence were released to the press. They are not foolproof, but they are reliable enough that it is almost impossible to get a job in law enforcement without being able to pass one. Therefore, if this man is innocent, why haven't his lawyers had him polygraphed by a private service and released the results to the public. That's not to say I approve of the death penalty - I'm just saying it's something I would consider if I was his lawyer and believed I had an innocent client.

    September 20, 2011 at 11:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • TWD

      I just read that he offered to take one. Hopefully they will let him they I don't know what it could do now, may be too little , too late...sad.

      September 21, 2011 at 12:25 am | Report abuse |
    • Jean Sartre, WI

      Polygraphs are notoriously unreliable and that is the reason that the court system does NOT accept them as evidence; you are correct, though, that this might play BIG in the arena of public opinion... then too, the naysayers and the bloodthirsty would simply say he beat the polygraph or he bought the guy giving it.

      Face it, Georgia wants real blood and a real killing because a COP WAS KILLED!

      They really do NOT care if the right guy is killed or not; just as long as someone DIES...

      September 21, 2011 at 4:49 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Moonbeam

    *NOW be a public relations nightmare (rather than "NOT"). Typo - sorry.

    September 20, 2011 at 11:20 pm | Report abuse |
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